The Internet communications revolution and the Republic

Anthony J. Langlois, Flinders University

Cass Sunstein, republic.com Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001, (224 pp). ISBN 0-691-07025-3 (hard back) RRP $46.00.

When Cass Sunstein turns his attention to democracy and technological change, one looks to his comments with anticipation. Specialising in jurisprudence, constitutional law, and the First Amendment, Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and Department of Political Science. A prolific author, his recent books have explored democracy, the language, policy, and costs of the rights revolution, and the relationship between free markets and social justice. In these works Sunstein has shown a commitment to democracy and ideas such as rights and social justice, along with a practical and clearheaded approach to their implementation. Far from utopian, as many who comment on rights or justice are accused of being, Sunstein shows that commitment to these ideas—ideals, even—can be combined with a practical assessment of what is at stake in their pursuit.

Thus one observes the stir caused by his latest offering republic.com with interest. This, without a doubt, is because the essay is a bold attempt to ask searching, even disturbing, questions about something to which many of us have become very attached. Sunstein issues us with a reflective challenge: what are the consequences for deliberative democracy, for the republic, of the communications revolution we call the internet?

Next to all the hype attending the evolution of the internet—including the often heard messianic claims that the internet will finally loose us from our chains and lead us to freedom, peace, and prosperity—Sunstein’s calm, analytic, methodical voice sounds rather downbeat, if not decidedly pessimistic. Which is to say that Sunstein’s book, if it turns out to be the harbinger of a new genre in which the social, political, and psychological aspects of a new communications technology are intelligently, reflectively, and—most significantly—publicly discussed, is a welcome contribution indeed. My emphasis here on public discussion, discussion accessible to the everyday citizen of the republic as well as to its elite members, points us in the direction of Sunstein’s concerns about the internet.

At its broadest, Sunstein is concerned with the preconditions of a healthy republic; a political society sustained by deliberative democracy and a well functioning system of free expression. He contends that in its current form, the internet undermines the preconditions of a healthy republic by creating ‘the daily me’, a much narrowed and emptied version—an anti-democratic shade, even—of the present self, no longer capable of hearing beyond the echoes of its own voice. ‘The daily me’, if you believe Sunstein, is an imminent reality, created by the growing power of consumers to filter what they see, hear, and read through the use of internet technologies.

There are two distinctive requirements for the robust functioning of the republic and its system of free expression. First, says Sunstein, people should be exposed to information, ideas, and materials that they themselves have not determined in advance: the chance encounter—such as a street demonstration, or an article that catches your eye in the newspaper on a topic you never would have sought out otherwise. Second, the citizens of the republic need to have a range of shared experiences, contributing to a form of communal identity born out of that which they undergo in life together. This is the social glue that holds a republic together, maintaining its smooth and coherent functioning.

Sunstein contends that the internet undermines the preconditions of a healthy republic.

Sunstein uses the picture of ‘the daily me’ to show us how the internet undermines these requirements. He places great store by what he calls ‘the power of complete filtering’, which he nominates as the unifying issue throughout the book, and the provocation for his concerned reflections on the place of deliberative democracy and effective free expression of ideas in the internet age. The power of complete filtering creates the daily me. We are called on to imagine the day when all the information we receive through the internet is fully personalised—in my case, that would mean I would never hear anything about sport (with the possible exception of tennis, in order to share one of my wife’s interests), but much about politics and philosophy. Sunstein’s concern goes beyond this, however, to suggest that—say, within politics, if you were a member of the religious right, you would only ever come into contact with information which would reinforce your views. Similarly, the die-hard state socialists would only visit socialist web sites, be members of socialist email lists, visit socialist chat rooms, watch or listen only to socialist heroes via live video/audio streaming. The economic rationalist would do similarly, never having need or cause to engage with a view that might question, challenge, or repudiate the mantras of neo-liberal economics.

The outcome is a world of fragmentation, where we have less and less space in which to be as a common people. Sunstein signals the loss of general interest intermediaries—places, activities, or media outlets (TV, radio, print) where people of various views can (perhaps even inadvertently) come together and learn things from one another. He argues that these general interest intermediaries, rather than causing fragmentation, isolation, and the development of extremism, have the reverse effect, generating the social glue which holds the republic together.

By contrast, the internet is a place of group polarisation, cybercascades (the cascading of information to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people like wild fire), the proliferation of hate groups, and so forth. Sunstein does not say that these are the only things going on with the internet, but he does give the very strong impression that this bleak picture will result if the technology is left as it is. His proper aim is to show that a ‘fragmented communications market creates considerable dangers’; he is on less stable ground with the suggestion that the new technology of the internet has fragmented the communications market.

In the course of probing the relationship between the republic and the internet, Sunstein traverses a wide intellectual terrain, giving us some prescient reflections on a number of important points. One issue raised is the relationship between the citizen and the consumer. These should not be conflated: the principle of consumer sovereignty is not the only principle operative in a republic. Indeed, it is far from the most important, and making it so can undermine many of those principles upon which a republic is based, including the dignity and equality of all individuals. Further, Sunstein reminds us that our individual preferences and choices are shaped by existing institutions and practices. This raises the basic question of how markets, and individual decisions in them, should be constrained to ensure that market outcomes support a republic—support, that is, a form of political association built on certain values and principles: equality, human rights, freedom of speech, equal opportunity, and so on.

Shared experiences and general interest intermediaries are the social glue holding a republic together.

These concerns lead Sunstein to discuss the role of government regulation in society. Here too, his contribution is valuable. We are all familiar with the calls for governments to leave the internet alone, that they have no place in trying to control it, that it is the true home of freedom, and as such will help bring peace and prosperity to a fragmented world. Sunstein argues the converse: that there is ‘regulation everywhere, thank goodness’—even on the net. One of the most basic forms of regulation is the area of property rights, which only exist because they are ensured by the state. Sunstein says ‘When we are discussing possible approaches to the Internet or other new communications technologies, we should never suggest that one route involves government regulation and that another route does not’ (p. 139).

Given that the principle audience of Sunstein’s book is in the United States, the question of the place of government regulation inevitably leads on to a discussion of the principles of free speech as set down in the American Constitution. In what reads as a clear and balanced interpretation of the free speech principle as it should apply to a republic, Sunstein argues that free speech is a democratic ideal, that it is not to be conflated with consumer sovereignty, that it is not an absolute (allowing anyone to say anything without any form of restraint), and that it does not prevent the political promotion of ideals associated with the republic. For Sunstein, one of the practical consequences of this is the further legitimation of certain forms of government regulation in the interests of the health of the polity; forms of regulation that may well apply to the internet. This opens the way for his policies and proposals.

These are the most disappointing part of the book. He makes six suggestions: deliberative domains, disclosure of conduct by producers of communications, voluntary self regulation, economic subsidies, ‘must carry’ rules for popular web sites, and ‘must carry’ rules for highly partisan web sites (the latter two in the form of links to other sites). Some aspects of these solutions certainly have merit, but at the general level they seem lame. Reading the book we are prepared and built up for these proposals, which on arrival seem to fizz rather than bang.

One of the main reasons for this is that they are significantly misdirected—and, being the pointy end of the stick, they show up an underlying misdirection in Sunstein’s argument. All too often he seems to be arguing that the nature of the new technology and how its nature makes us use it causes the increased fragmentation he sees in the political life of the republic.

Free speech is a democratic ideal, not to be conflated with consumer sovereignty.

What seems to be absent from the picture is the nature and character of the users of the internet. Doubtlessly, technology changes us as people. But it does not determine us. The internet will not necessarily lead to a more fragmented society. (Indeed, I concur with Mark S. Nadel’s judgement in the Stanford Law Review that the ‘real life’ examples Sunstein gives in his follow up piece, Echo Chambers, do not seem to have much to do with the impact of the internet.)

The crucial variable here is our character and ideals as people, and so a key issue is the need to educate people about the ideals of the republic and the dangers of isolation and social fragmentation per se. While this is precisely what Sunstein is doing by writing this book, he neglects to articulate it either as his goal or as one of the remedies we should collectively pursue. From this perspective, Sunstein seems a little too close to the position of those that become aware of a genuine problem but then blame the new technologies involved rather than the social dysfunction itself (as James Fallows points out in the New York Review of Books).

As I noted at the outset, Sunstein’s book has caused a stir: it has been the subject of many reviews, a number of fora, and so on. Sunstein himself has responded to this discussion. The discussion, on my reading, has two general conclusions: Sunstein has given us a timely offering that asks important questions and deals with the underpinning theoretical material—the concerns with the republic, regulation, free speech, and so on—clearly and intelligently, but his concerns about the well-functioning republic are poorly founded inasmuch as he nominates the internet itself as the major threat.

Most commentators dismiss Sunstein’s fears about the internet. Some argue that Sunstein is in fact not familiar enough with the technology (as demonstrated by some factual mistakes); if he were he would know that even the most advanced ‘daily me’ is not highly effective at isolating us from chance encounters and common experiences; unsolicited emails are a constant source of the unexpected and quite often of value; major portals such as Yahoo serve as general interest intermediaries; of all our indoor activities the internet is the least isolating and so on.

At this point Sunstein claims to have been misread. In the Boston Review Forum he wrote that he did not endorse the claim that ‘the Internet is bad for democracy, because it is reducing common experiences and producing a situation in which people live in echo chambers of their own design’. Like some other commentators, I take this to be a shift in Sunstein’s position, rather than a correction of how his original argument should be read. At the very least, we can say, if it is simply a case of misreading, then many eminent commentators have managed to similarly misread the same book.

The internet can be used for good or evil; it may even amplify these tendencies in our nature.

The issue of misreading may help to clarify some of the wider issues that remain unresolved despite the calm that has descended over the initial flurry of dispute surrounding republic.com. Particular understandings flow from particular perspectives. At the broadest level, basic assumptions about humanity inform our responses to new technologies. For those who believe our ‘dark side’ will prevail, the internet is but one more scientific advance that will eventually undermine the meagre good we are able to cobble together out of our lives (much in the same way that nuclear science is pessimistically viewed by some as only a harbinger of destruction, with Hiroshima as witness). While one would hesitate to place Sunstein here, his views clearly tend in this direction when contrasted with those who trumpet the internet as our ticket to freedom, peace, prosperity, and (perhaps) salvation. Behind the more nuanced articulations of this optimistic perspective lies the Enlightenment belief in the inherent perfectibility of ‘man’. Put the internet together with nano-technology and advances in the biological sciences and you find a substantial audience for this fare as well.

More concretely, while Sunstein has clarified how we should interpret his comments, a range of issues remain unresolved. His later interventions suggest that he is more concerned about a system in which people get to decide in advance what they will or will not see, rather than in the internet per se. While the public debate may be content with the suggestion that the internet is an accomplice to, rather than the main perpetrator of, possible failings in our democracies, the question of how the internet changes society still stands. And behind this is the broader question of whether or not technology is a neutral agent in social change. Thus, many of the issues Sunstein is concerned with (such as those canvassed in Echo Chambers) may have nothing to do with the internet and be an aspect of pre-existing social dysfunction. But, it may not be wise simply to assume that new technologies have no effect on how social dysfunction plays itself out. And it may be to this wisdom that Sunstein is trying to alert us.

Sunstein has given us a lucid exposition of what we desire in a republic, and of some of the dangers lurking in the shadows outside its walls, seeking to subvert and undermine. For that we should be grateful. What is not so helpful is Sunstein’s apparent? initial? identification of the internet itself as one of these dangers. A more likely reading is that the internet can be used for good and for evil; that it may even amplify or exacerbate these tendencies in our nature. The citizens of the republic need to be aware of both possibilities, and guard their treasured form of social organisation accordingly.

REFERENCES

Boston Review Forum 2001, [Online], Available: http://bostonreview.mit.edu/ndf.html#Internet [2002 June 6] (An interaction between Sunstein and seven reviewers of republic.com.)

Fallows, James. 2002, ‘He’s Got Mail’, The New York Review of Books, [Online], 14 March, Available: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15180 [2002, June 6]

Nadel, Mark S. ‘Customized News Services and Extremist Enclaves in republic.com’, Stanford Law Review, [Online], vol. 54, no. 4, pp. 831–886, Available: http://www.law.stanford.edu/lawreview/content/vol54/index.html [2002, June 6]

Sunstein, Cass. Echo Chambers, [Online], Available: http://pup.princeton.edu/titles/7014.html [2002, June 6] (Includes links to the transcript of an email forum with Sunstein, and other material.)

Anthony Langlois is Lecturer in the School of Political and International Studies at Flinders University. His book The Politics of Justice and Human Rights: Southeast Asia and Universalist Theory was published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.