Cover image for Republic.com
Title:
Republic.com
Author:
Sunstein, Cass R.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2001]

©2001
Physical Description:
224 pages ; 20 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780691070254
Format :
Book

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Central Library HM851 .S87 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary


See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. In all of the applause for this remarkable ascendance of personalized information, Cass Sunstein asks the questions, Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech?



Republic.com exposes the drawbacks of egocentric Internet use, while showing us how to approach the Internet as responsible citizens, not just concerned consumers. Democracy, Sunstein maintains, depends on shared experiences and requires citizens to be exposed to topics and ideas that they would not have chosen in advance. Newspapers and broadcasters helped create a shared culture, but as their role diminishes and the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving. In their place will arise only louder and ever more extreme echoes of our own voices, our own opinions.



In evaluating the consequences of new communications technologies for democracy and free speech, Sunstein argues the question is not whether to regulate the Net (it's already regulated), but how; proves that freedom of speech is not an absolute; and underscores the enormous potential of the Internet to promote freedom as well as its potential to promote "cybercascades" of like-minded opinions that foster and enflame hate groups. The book ends by suggesting a range of potential reforms to correct current misconceptions and to improve deliberative democracy and the health of the American republic.


Chat with Cass Sunstein in a Message Forum hosted beginning April 1, 2001.



Author Notes

Cass R. Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard Law School and is the most cited law professor in the United States.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Everyone agrees the "marketplace of ideas" makes self-government work, right? Not Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who argues that in the Internet age letting people "consume" only the news they want actually imperils the republic. Sunstein proposes some regulation of Web sites, a conclusion following from his two normative tenets of citizenship in a democracy. They are (1) that people should be exposed to opinions and materials they have not chosen, and (2) that most people should have some common experiences. Sunstein believes this no longer obtains because of fragmentation induced by TV, the falling readership of newspapers and general-interest magazines, and the proliferation of special-interest Web sites. The result: "cybercascades" in which like-minded people interact only with themselves. Believing the current communications environment manifests a "market failure" justifying government intervention, Sunstein, by taking on unexamined assumptions about free speech, lights a fire underneath First Amendment absolutists such as the ALA. Written in plain language, not legalese, this is important, controversial current events fare. --Gilbert Taylor


Publisher's Weekly Review

The counterintuitive claim that the Internet causes us to become more extremist and close-minded, rather than exposing us to a haphazardly unbiased array of unexpected viewpoints, is the cornerstone of this challenging and dense book. University of Chicago legal scholar Sunstein (Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech) contends that we are witnessing a decline in the influence of "general interest intermediaries" and an increase in highly specialized forums for information Web sites that allow us to "personalize" the news, customized cable TV channels devoted only to fashion, music, sports or other specialized subjects. In such a culture, he argues, we have the seductive ability to see only what already interests us and to filter out any exposure to the different concerns and political opinions of fellow citizens, inadvertently robbing ourselves of a truly democratic conversation. Sunstein posits that the solution to this self-imposed intellectual isolation lies in the seemingly unpalatable but potentially workable realm of government regulation creating cyberspace "town halls," requiring political Web sites to provide links to groups with opposing views. Sunstein's critics will counter that most mainstream media outlets, owned by an increasingly small number of corporate conglomerates, don't provide their audience with a diverse range of programming in the first place. But this will not stop them from finding Sunstein's arguments complex and thoughtful. (Mar.) Forecast: This slim, sleek volume perfectly designed to appeal to Internet-era attention spans will attract browsers, while Sunstein's controversial claims and a national tour will likely garner him some media attention. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Choice Review

The conventional wisdom about the Internet seems to be that it will enhance the possibilities of democratic interaction by opening up communication to people limited by the corporate "newsspeak" of conventional mass media outlets. Sunstein (law, Univ. of Chicago) presents a contrary view. Services that provide linked, edited, and limited news, opinion, and analysis bound in a manner that reinforces the preferences and biases of the user undermine a basic tenet of democratic culture: the clash of contrary opinion. Sunstein worries that the spread of such services will lead to further fragmentation of citizen opinion and civic culture, which in turn will remove the true dialog underpinning democratic governance. If opinions do not clash but are merely confirmed, then the syntheses said to grow from the marketplace of diverse notions are less likely to occur, thereby reducing the blessing that flows from free and open debate. The villains here are not the giant corporations nor the "digital divide" conventionally understood, but all individual consumers who can screen out ideas by using a network that can be made to produce only the news and ideas we want to hear. An interesting, accessible, and provocative book that is highly recommended for all libraries. General readers, upper-division undergraduates, and above. E. Lewis New College of the University of South Florida


Excerpts

Excerpts

the daily me It is some time in the future. Technology has greatly increased people's ability to "filter" what they want to read, see, and hear. General interest newspapers and magazines are largely a thing of the past. The same is true of broadcasters. The idea of choosing "channel 4" or instead "channel 7" seems positively quaint. With the aid of a television or computer screen, and the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines. Having dispensed with broadcasters, you can choose your own video programming, with movies, game shows, sports, shopping, and news of your choice. You mix and match. You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less. Maybe you want to focus on sports all the time, and to avoid anything dealing with business or government. It is easy for you to do exactly that. Perhaps you choose replays of famous football games in the early evening, live baseball from New York at night, and college basketball on the weekends. If you hate sports, and want to learn about the Middle East in the evening and watch old situation comedies late at night, that is easy too. If you care only about the United States, and want to avoid international issues entirely, you can restrict yourself to material involving the United States. So too if you care only about New York, or Chicago, or California, or Long Island. Perhaps you have no interest at all in "news." Maybe you find "news" impossibly boring. If so, you need not see it at all. Maybe you select programs and stories involving only music and weather. Or perhaps you are more specialized still, emphasizing opera, or Beethoven, or the Rolling Stones, or modern dance, or some subset of one or more of the above. If you are interested in politics, you may want to restrict yourself to certain points of view, by hearing only from people you like. In designing your preferred newspaper, you choose among conservatives, moderates, liberals, vegetarians, the religious right, and socialists. You have your favorite columnists; perhaps you want to hear from them, and from no one else. If so, that is entirely feasible with a simple "point and click." Or perhaps you are interested in only a few topics. If you believe that the most serious problem is gun control, or global warming, or lung cancer, you might spend most of your time reading about that problem, if you wish from the point of view that you like best. Of course everyone else has the same freedom that you do. Many people choose to avoid news altogether. Many people restrict themselves to their own preferred points of view-liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; neo-Nazis, neo-Nazis. People in different states, and in different countries, make predictably different choices. The resulting divisions run along many lines-of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, wealth, age, political conviction, and more. Most whites avoid news and entertainment options designed for African-Americans. Many African-Americans focus largely on options specifically designed for them. So too with Hispanics. With the reduced importance of the general interest magazine and newspaper, and the flowering of individual programming design, different groups make fundamentally different choices. The market for news, entertainment, and information has finally been perfected. Consumers are able to see exactly what they want. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing. PERSONALIZATION AND DEMOCRACY Our communications market is rapidly moving in the direction of this apparently utopian picture. As of this writing, many newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal , allow readers to create "personalized" electronic editions, containing exactly what they want, and excluding what they do not want. If you are interested in getting help with the design of an entirely personalized paper, you can consult an ever-growing number of Websites, including individual.com (helpfully named!) and crayon.com (a less helpful name, but evocative in its own way). In reality, we are not so very far from complete personalization of the system of communications. Consider just a few examples. ò Broadcast.com has "compiled hundreds of thousands of programs so you can find the one that suits your fancy.... For example, if you want to see all the latest fashions from France twenty-four hours of the day you can get them. If you're from Baltimore living in Dallas and you want to listen to WBAL, your hometown station, you can hear it." ò Sonicnet.com allows you to create your own musical universe, consisting of what it calls "Me Music." Me Music is a "place where you can listen to the music you love on the radio station YOU create ... A place where you can watch videos of your favorite artists and new artists." ò Zatso.com allows users to produce "a personal newscast." Its intention is to create a place "where you decide what's news." Your task is to tell "what TV news stories you're interested in," and Zatso.com turns that information into a specifically designed newscast. From the main "This is the News I Want" menu, you can choose stories with particular words and phrases, or you can select topics, such as sports, weather, crime, health, government/politics, and much more. ò Info Xtra offers "news and entertainment that's important to you," and it allows you to find this "without hunting through newspapers, radio and websites." Personalized news, local weather, and "even your daily horoscope or winning lottery number" will be delivered to you once you specify what you want and when you want it. ò TiVo, a television recording system, is designed, in the words of its Website, to give "you the ultimate control over your TV viewing." It does this by putting "you at the center of your own TV network, so you'll always have access to whatever you want, whenever you want." TiVo "will automatically find and digitally record your favorite programs every time they air" and will help you create "your personal TV line-up." It will also learn your tastes, so that it can "suggest other shows that you may want to record and watch based on your preferences." ò Intertainer, Inc. provides "home entertainment services on demand," not limited to television but also including music, movies, and shopping. Intertainer is intended for people who want "total control" and "personalized experiences." It is "a new way to get whatever movies, music, and television you want anytime you want on your PC or TV." ò George Bell, the chief executive officer of the search engine Excite, exclaims, "We are looking for ways to be able to lift chunks of content off other areas of our service and paste them onto your personal page so you can constantly refresh and update that `newspaper of me.' About 43 percent of our entire user data base has personalized their experience on Excite." If you put the words "personalized news" in any search engine, you will find vivid evidence of what is happening. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Thus MIT technology specialist Nicholas Negroponte prophecies the emergence of "the Daily Me"-a communications package that is personally designed, with each component fully chosen in advance. Many of us are applauding these developments, which obviously increase individual convenience and entertainment. But in the midst of the applause, we should insist on asking some questions. How will the increasing power of private control affect democracy? How will the Internet, the new forms of television, and the explosion of communications options alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? What are the social preconditions for a well-functioning system of democratic deliberation, or for individual freedom itself? My purpose in this book is to cast some light on these questions. I do so by emphasizing the most striking power provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to filter what they see . In the process of discussing this power, I will attempt to provide a better understanding of the meaning of freedom of speech in a democratic society. I will also outline possible policy reforms, designed to ensure that new communications technologies serve democracy, rather than the other way around. A large part of my aim is to explore what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. Above all, I urge that in a diverse society, such a system requires far more than restraints on government censorship and respect for individual choices. For the last decades, this has been the preoccupation of American law and politics, and indeed the law and politics of many other nations as well, including, for example, Germany, France, England, and Israel. Censorship is indeed a threat to democracy and freedom. But an exclusive focus on government censorship produces serious blind spots. In particular, a well-functioning system of free expression must meet two distinctive requirements. First , people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating. They are important partly to ensure against fragmentation and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which likeminded people speak only with themselves. I do not suggest that government should force people to see things that they wish to avoid. But I do contend that in a democracy deserving the name, people often come across views and topics that they have not specifically selected. Second , many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems. People may even find it hard to understand one another. Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by the media, provide a form of social glue. A system of communications that radically diminishes the number of such experiences will create a number of problems, not least because of the increase in social fragmentation. As preconditions for a well-functioning democracy, these requirements hold in any large nation. They are especially important in a heterogeneous nation, one that faces an occasional risk of fragmentation. They have all the more importance as each nation becomes increasingly global and each citizen becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, a "citizen of the world." An insistence on these two requirements should not be rooted in nostalgia for some supposedly idyllic past. With respect to communications, the past was hardly idyllic. Compared to any other period in human history, we are in the midst of many extraordinary gains, not least from the standpoint of democracy itself. For us, nostalgia is not only unproductive but also senseless. Nor should anything here be taken as a reason for "optimism" or "pessimism," two great obstacles to clear thinking about new technological developments. If we must choose between them, by all means let us choose optimism. But in view of the many potential gains and losses inevitably associated with massive technological change, any attitude of "optimism" or "pessimism" is far too general to make sense. What I mean to provide is not a basis for pessimism, but a lens through which we might understand, a bit better than before, what makes a system of freedom of expression successful in the first place. That improved understanding will equip us to appreciate a free nation's own aspirations and thus help in evaluating continuing changes in the system of communications. It will also point the way toward a clearer understanding of the nature of citizenship and toward social reforms if emerging developments disserve our aspirations, as they threaten to do. As we shall see, it is much too simple to say that any system of communications is desirable if and because it allows individuals to see and hear what they choose. Unanticipated, unchosen exposures, and shared experiences, are important too. PRECURSORS AND INTERMEDIARIES Unlimited filtering may seem quite strange, perhaps even the stuff of science fiction. But it is not entirely different from what has come before. Filtering is inevitable, a fact of life. It is as old as humanity itself. No one can see, hear, or read everything. In the course of any hour, let alone any day, every one of us engages in massive filtering, simply to make life manageable and coherent. With respect to the world of communications, moreover, a free society gives people a great deal of power to filter out unwanted materials. Only tyrannies force people to read or to watch. In free nations, those who read newspapers do not read the same newspaper; some people do not read any newspaper at all. Every day, people make choices among magazines based on their tastes and their point of view. Sports enthusiasts choose sports magazines, and in many nations they can choose a magazine focused on the sport of their choice, Basketball Weekly , say, or the Practical Horseman ; conservatives can read National Review or the Weekly Standard ; countless magazines are available for those who like cars; Dog Fancy is a popular item for canine enthusiasts; people who are somewhat left of center might like the American Prospect ; there is even a magazine called Cigar Aficionado . These are simply contemporary illustrations of a longstanding fact of life in democratic countries: a diversity of communications options and a range of possible choices. But the emerging situation does contain large differences, stemming above all from a dramatic increase in available options, a simultaneous increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries . These include newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. An appreciation of the social functions of general interest intermediaries will play a large role in this book. People who rely on such intermediaries have a range of chance encounters, involving shared experiences with diverse others, and also exposure to materials and topics that they did not seek out in advance. Continues... Excerpted from republic.com by Cass Sunstein Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Daily Mep. 3
Chapter 2 An Analogy and an Idealp. 23
Chapter 3 Fragmentation and Cybercascadesp. 51
Chapter 4 Social Glue and Spreading Informationp. 89
Chapter 5 Citizensp. 105
Chapter 6 What's Regulation? A Pleap. 125
Chapter 7 Freedom of Speechp. 141
Chapter 8 Policies and Proposalsp. 167
Chapter 9 Conclusion: Republic.comp. 191
Bibliographical Notep. 203
Notesp. 205
Acknowledgmentsp. 213
Indexp. 215

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