Republic, Refreshed

Cass Sunstein meets the Internet 2.0, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press, 2009. $19.95. 272 pgs.
From Hamilton to Hofstadter, America’s observers have long labeled it a society reinforced by healthy debate. Harvard Law’s Cass Sunstein’s latest work, the awkwardly-titled 2.0, offers a vision at odds with this optimistic tradition. Sunstein sees new technologies sapping the foundations of democratic government, as consumers’ preferences diverge from their duties as citizens, dangerously dividing Americans from their political opponents or from politics entirely. Is C-SPAN worth anything if ESPN is one click away? Yet, American political history offers countless examples of explicitly partisan newspapers, one-party states and polarized politics with citizens far more sequestered than the present 2.0 bemoans. The work identifies a clear trend of polarization and apathy, but Sunstein ultimately fails to persuade that the dilemma is a divergence from the norm.

A Series of Filters

Although Sunstein’s other works critique the Internet, 2.0 presents a broader image of the “Neighborhood Me,” a citizen’s ability “to filter what they want to read, see and hear”- whether DailyKos or Fox News. The vision is more ambiguous than disdainful, and Sunstein even praises entertainment filters such as Amazon or Netflix. Translated to democracy, however, the result is a citizen creating a self-reinforcing reality. Sunstein has long argued the Internet’s like-minded communities serve to intensify each other’s beliefs, and 2.0 offers the full polemic against preaching to the choir. Newer is Sunstein’s focus on “social cascade,” the power of viewpoints to become popular for their popularity, rather than from any underlying value.  Yet the book’s greatest concern lies not with the partisan but with those who with the option to have ‘filtered out’ [political] experiences…would have chosen to do so.” A follower of MSNBC might see an altered reality, but his holds more value to the republican lifestyle than a viewer of the Golf Channel might claim.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunstein’s solution to these issues is a law professor’s dream: imposing public forums. In physical space, the law permits free speech in most public places. Sunstein argues that such doctrine benefits both the speaker, through “right of speaker’s access both to places and to people,” as well as his listeners who enjoy “the likelihood that people generally will be exposed to a wide variety of people and views.” In the New Media milieu, Sunstein sees the Huffington Post linking to the Drudge Report or MSNBC disclosing its hours of public interest programming. Uniquely, 2.0 avers the power of government coercion in favor of voluntary civic agreements and private social pressure. The open space of the Internet shifts Sunstein’s focus from forming opposing points of view to publicizing those dissents.
Everything New is Old Again

While well-written and well argued, the work ultimately leaves its readers wondering as to the point.  For Sunstein, the greatest good is to present citizens with opposing viewpoints, and thus 2.0 focuses on providing those perspectives to even the most isolated ideologue. Yet Sunstein leaves unanswered the question of what happens next. After all, countless such exhibitions-perhaps the best being Nixon meeting with Vietnam protestors the day before invading Cambodia-would suggest that exposure offers no guarantee of altering opinions Indeed, the principle that democracy depends on the universal availability of a common public discourse a relatively new one, and ironically the product of the old, culturally homogeneous newsroom. Yet these questions remain for another book.
Ultimately, however, 2.0’s greatest omission is the positive reason for ideological sorting: the synergy of like-minded thinkers. The author implicitly understands this principle, writing from within the Harvard Law faculty. Such groups obviously have value in allowing the like-midned to build on other’s discoveries, yet 2.0 offers no clear distinction between such an intellectual community and an echo chamber. The Van Jones story might not have broken without the concentrated conservative blogosphere, as readers of the New York Times remained totally unaware of the issue until the first Times piece a day after his resignation. The isolation and filtering of American citizens still has its costs, as Sunstein recognizes, but in this case at least, the future belongs to the filtered.

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