The good, the bad and the prolific moderator.
December 6, 2010 12:16 AM   Subscribe

At the Bartos Theater, in conversation with Henry Jenkins, these speakers [Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein] don’t so much square off as share their hopes and fears for the emergence of online democracy.
The first order of business, instructs Jenkins, is taking stock of the current “communication space” to assess whether current practices encourage the growth of digital democracy. Cass Sunstein gives the Internet a C-, for its “babble and excellence…brilliant insight and cruelty, that are not from the standpoint of self-government…what we deserve.” Yochai Benkler, describing the “good public sphere,” focuses less on sheer freedom of expression, and more on how people participate in “production of an agenda,” and how they are enabled to “investigate, pursue, differ, err, correct and discuss.”

Sunstein bemoans the common opinion in the “geek world” that if you’re sovereign over your own options, you can “declare victory and go home.” In Sunstein’s version of a well-functioning system of communication, “you don’t construct a daily me, your communications cocoon, your little information chamber,” but embrace “unanticipated exposure and shared experience.” Such moments energize people, shifting them from passivity to active citizenship, declares Sunstein.

Benkler sees the Internet as couched in the larger framework of power and elites, where government or commercially directed mass media typically produce our common experiences. But now, with the Web, “instead of having a few hundred or a few thousand people with a genuine ability to set the agenda, we instead have two to three million people who believe they can affect the agenda without kidding themselves too badly. That seems like a larger population that can push on power.” This is a “significant change in citizenship from the idea of sitting in front of the TV.” He finds particularly attractive organizations like Netroots, which prod traditional political parties in certain directions.

But there’s a possibility for fragmentation, and even dangerous polarization, Sunstein worries, with online communities clustering around similar interests and erecting bulwarks against contrary thinking. “The notion that freedom of choice, the ability to self-select and produce our own information content is a full cure for what ails us, runs into obstacles,” he says. Benkler, though, believes the tendency to “tell each other how great and right we are and how wrong they are” is a plausible description “of how we’ve always been.” He is happily observing a new generation of children grow up deeply imbedded in new technologies that help them develop an “attitude of seeking and being able to find.”

Sunstein summons his muse, Jane Jacobs, to describe his ideal: an Internet metropolis that mirrors the best an American city offers. “Walking along some street, you see a person, interaction, building that stuns you…If you really look, the fertility and surprise of that will alter what you’re interested in, what you care about, your aesthetic and even political sense.” Sunstein dreams of a digital world designed for serendipity, as well as norms of interaction, (such as on Wikipedia) that promote collaboration, self-correction and the prevention of lies and cruelty.
posted by infinite intimation (7 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend Benkler's Wealth of Networks.
posted by Joe Chip at 1:21 AM on December 6, 2010

Wasn't this deleted once already?
posted by briank at 5:02 AM on December 6, 2010

Wasn't this deleted once already?

At least he trimmed the bibliography.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:22 AM on December 6, 2010

Wow, that deleted post is one for the record books.
posted by fixedgear at 7:46 AM on December 6, 2010

Excellent use of the "good" tag.

FWIW I kind of agree with Sunstein - in an ideal world, people would be exposed to a plurality of ideas and not hunker down behind ideological walls. In practice that's not gonna happen.

Now as to the second link - I'm not saying that conspiracies never happen, but most of the people in CT communities are completely unreachable and barely blink when shown information that contradicts them. If you try to reason with them you're a shill. If Sunstein thinks he can open a critical thinking and sanity kiosk on the internet boulevard and have people like that flock to it, he's sniffing unicorn farts.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:10 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's sort of strange that the big-name writers in internet culture (Benkler, Lessig, Sunstein, Vaidhyanathan, etc.) seem to all be big believers in Habermasian deliberative democracy / the liberal public sphere, since, as fleetmouse so ably pointed out, positioning critical thinking and rational deliberative decision making as central to democracy and culture is pretty much equivalent to sniffing unicorn farts.

These guys all read to me as mounting spirited defenses of a set of concepts that have two crucial problems: 1) they're impossible to realize, 2) they wouldn't be all that great even if they were possible.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:04 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heh, well I didn't mean to condemn the possibility of rational discourse and participatory democracy just because some quadrupeds - the guys who read Infowars and Henry Makow, for example - are unreachably ignorant and paranoid.

I do think we have to ask ourselves how they got that way in the first place though, and alleviate it with e.g. better early education that teaches critical thinking skills. Once adults are proudly, screechingly, defiantly stupid, it's too late.
posted by fleetmouse at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

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