24 September 02008

Why the net won't turn us all into social isolationists

Republic20.gifLast year Cass Sunstein produced a revised version of his book Republic.com, titled — with crushing inevitability — Republic.com 2.0. In it, he critiqued the impact of the net on democratic discourse and public spaces. His dystopia is one where we all subscribe to the Daily Me, a filter that presents us only with the worldview of people we agree with. What we gain in (temporary) contentedness we lose in critical appraisal and debate — with potentially dire political and social consequences.

I think there are three sets of reasons why Sunstein's dystopia will not come about:

  1. Filtering and recommender systems will always be imperfect; they'll never be as good as their evangelists would have you believe.
  2. Even if perfect filtering did work, people wouldn't like it; they'd quickly get 'perfect' fatigue.
  3. If people did liked perfect filtering, we wouldn't need the blogs that Sunstein argues are the medium of 'echo chamber' opinion: if all you ever have to say is 'me too' in chorus with your like-minded peers, the whole point of blogging (self-casting) disappears.

After my book was reviewed alongside Republic.com 2.0, James Harkin at the ICA invited me to give a response to Professor Sunstein when he was due to speak there last December. Unfortunately Sunstein had to cancel his trip to the UK, and, since he's published several more books since then, the chances of me delivering my response in person are low. So here it is in writing instead.

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