Monday, May 30, 2005

Talking Sunstein-Jenkins

Does anyone else find it intriguing that there is very little disagreement about how wrong Cass Sunstein's thesis is in "The Daily We"? For one, isn't that one of his points -- that groups get together online and agree?

Perhaps this is a testament to how much Sunstein misses the point of what the new media represent. Calling the Internet a "breeding ground for extremism" seems to be a little out of touch with, well, the Internet. Also, this argument stems from pure speculation about what could happen if people shut themselves off to reality. It doesn't actually seem to be happening; I've not yet found any data to defend the assertion that the extreme ends of our political spectrum have encountered recruitment bonanzas. (True, Lyndon LaRouche and his efforts at affixing "Beast-Man" to Dick Cheney's name never really seem to run out of funds or creepy young people for his movement...perhaps we should blame the Internet.) The crazies will be with us for the long haul, and I don't think I'd worry too much about new media disintegrating our public sanity.

Jenkins, on the other hand, successfully reminds us all how the Internet provides our democracy with a much larger public park. Sure, I can avoid an entire side of the debate if I want, but can't I just as easily avoid the political demonstrators? The potential that exists for improving our democracy in the new media overrides any of the worry about the proliferation of "daily me." It makes sense that the vast majority of the class disagree with Sunstein's basic argument and agree wholeheartedly with Jenkins.

Still, Sunstein does raise a crucial concern that I have trouble dismissing: an increased polarization of the political arena. And while I have trouble blaming the Internet, the new media -- even if solely because of the speed and ease of communication -- has sped up and antagonized the process. MoveOn subscribers get a near-daily reinforcement of their ideology; similarly, the RNC regularly prods the inboxes of their followers. There's a reason why political organizers salivate over the rapidly expanding capabilities they have at their fingertips because of new media.

The result is a meaner, more antagonistic marketplace of ideas. It's hard to respect the other side when your inbox tells you everyday how wrong that other side is. Compromise becomes less and less of an option. Did you see how mad Dr. Dobson was after the "Anti-Climactic Compromise of 2005" (term coined here!)

Of course, this didn't begin with the Internet. What Sunstein alludes to, albeit briefly and near the end, is the power that the Internet and new media have to help reduce polarization and self-isolation. It's for these reasons that I'm just not ready to conclude that Sunstein's concerns aren't valid, even if I find Jenkins' argument stronger.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Great post!

You wrote "Does anyone else find it intriguing that there is very little disagreement about how wrong Cass Sunstein's thesis is in "The Daily We"? For one, isn't that one of his points -- that groups get together online and agree?"

I think that was part of his point - we are all agreeing about him being wrong and together feel more justified in our beliefs. Now, when we run into someone who opposses our 'point' of view (and supports his) we would be more likely to dismiss or extremely oppose them.

That's what I think he's saying. And I think he's wrong. I think that by discussing his article we are begining to understand how we each feel about his points and are forming our own opinions. I think there always has been, and always will be, a certain type of person that is open to peer extremism. The internet may help bring those people together - but it's not creating them.