It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar (J.S. Mill)

This is a proper essay I am afraid – I wanted to write up my notes so that I have them to drop into my literature review.  I have to say that Cass Sunstein Republic 2.0 was a pleasure to read – great thinking written with an excellent style – would that all academics could string such a sentence together – the literature review would be much easier!

Short disclaimer – I finished this late and have not proofed it – please be kind and point out any howlers – thank you

Key points from the book for me are:

  • The enormous danger of the “Daily Me” where we only see content that we already agree with
  • The idea of “Group Polarisation” and the fact that groups will tend towards the more extreme version of themselves so that it is essential to expose people to a range of ideas to support deliberative democracy
  • The fact that we have the accept the idea that we are consumers AND citizens and look for ways where we can culturally and legislatively balance these two fairly different positions
  • Ideas around what public spaces need in order to support deliberation
  • The BBC is a marvellous thing

There are lots of good quotes in here but this really struck me:

“Many people are fully prepared to develop an interest in topics that they have not selected and in fact know nothing about. To work well, a deliberative democracy had better have many such people.”

If this has wetted the appetite then read on here:

Sunstein discusses freedom of speech in the context of democracy and also the way in which the networked society and new technologies affect the way in which we both create and consume that speech. Where Manuel Castell’s attacks the conglomerates who control our access to information Sunstein looks at the way in which we choose to consume it. He introduces the idea of the “Daily me” which offers people the chance to select the news sources and content types that they are most interested in. He then goes on to critique and warn about the dangers of citizens becoming too ghettoed in the news sources which they look at because such homogeneity does not support democratic deliberation:

“But I do contend that in a democracy deserving the name, lives should be structured so that people often come across views and topics that they have not specifically selected.”

What’s also interesting is the way that he views media companies – in common with Castells (and others) he sees the danger of too much control over our information space from commercial suppliers however he also sees the importance of editorial balance and the fact that the increase in personalisation of content is actually just part of the picture. In parallel these media companies are losing control over the process of news production and with that the editorial management which they formally brought to bear. He makes a strong argument for a national news provider as a way of ensuring editorial balence – and if you think about the US news scene (think Fox) then you can see why.  However his major concern with the fact that we are seeking our news out for ourselves is more the way in which we only encounter information we go and look for:

“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.”

This idea of a reduction in the ‘chance encounters’ challenges one of the assumptions of the benefits of the online world where you can find and read anything – and yet you very rarely do so as most people actually stay within a very narrow band of content. Do I agree? I think in the main part yes – though you can lose hours of time googling your way from day to day then you do tend to be fairly staid in the news sources you both read and trust.

Sunstein’s data is all around the fact that political websites and blogs can be shown to show far more links to similar thinking people.  “One study explores the degree to which conservative and liberal bloggers are interacting with each other. Focusing on 1,400 blogs, the study finds that 91 percent of the links are to like-minded sites”.  He goes on to suggest that “public-spirited bloggers would do well to offer links to those whose views are quite different from their own.”

However it would be interesting to see how the standard consumer of news behaves. I think about this sometimes in the context of the ‘twitterati’ who I talk with (and consider myself part of). We are all huge evangelists for the use of technology and social media to in some way remake democracy and help communities to function better but do we ever pay more than lip service to the idea that some people not only don’t ‘get it’ but really don’t want it?

Personally I think that the evidence is building towards the fact that our world is moving online in a way which is beyond convenient shopping and novelty cats (Clay Shirky made very amusing use of cat pictures – will be blogging on this later) but we need to accept that this change is actually relatively slow in internet years. The data (and I would always cite Ofcom / OII / Eurobarometer at this point) is I think starting to show that we will have the majority of people of working ages online and using social media in around 5 years time. This doesn’t take into account what might happen with the ‘silver surfers’ (if they are in fact ever allowed to retire) and of course doesn’t take into account what happens if the internet makes the kind of shift in behaviour that Facebook (and predecessors) showed – something may well happen with the take up of mobile or the use of real-time / augmented reality. But let’s say that’s true –that’s actually a very realistic planning horizon for government to be able to actually be there to meet these people when they arrive.  Sunstein has started to consider this as well and talks about the responsibilities of being a citizen:

“This does not mean that people have to be thinking about public affairs all, most, or even much of the time. But it does mean that each of us has rights and duties as citizens, not simply as consumers. As we will see, active citizen engagement is necessary to promote not only democracy but social well-being too. And in the modern era, one of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry that is not inert is to ensure that “deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary.”

in the context of the Daily Me is talks about the dangers of the current online environment:

“Real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous, not in demographic terms, but in terms of interest and outlook.”

He is able to articulate this danger with an effect that he calls “Group Polarization”:

“The term “group polarization” refers to something very simple: after deliberation, people are likely to move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined. With respect to the Internet and new communications technologies, the implication is that groups of like-minded people, engaged in discussion with one another, will end up thinking the same thing that they thought before-but in more extreme form “

And the explanation?

“People do not like their reputations to suffer in the eyes of those who seem most like them.”

Yes – if we surround ourselves with people who agree with us then the amplification effect on our views means we become more extreme. Bad news for deliberative democracy if you don’t come into contact with a wide range of ideas.  This is fascinating stuff – as much because it looks at real world behaviours in an online context (lots of good references in here is you read the book) and it also challenges the assumption that online community is of itself a good thing:

“Group polarization will significantly increase if people think of themselves, antecedently or otherwise, as part of a group having a shared identity and a degree of solidarity.”

And

“In a reputation cascade, people think that they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd in order to maintain the good opinion of others.

Don’t worry community fans – he goes on to talk about how we can see deliberation being supported within insulated groups or communities:

“We might define enclave deliberation as that form of deliberation that occurs within more or less insulated groups, in which like-minded people speak mostly to one another. The Internet, along with other new communications options, makes it much easier to engage in enclave deliberation.”

He also speaks about the specific benefits of online over offline deliberation:

“some groups tend to be especially quiet when participating in broader deliberative bodies. In this light, a special advantage of enclave deliberation is that it promotes the development of positions that would otherwise be invisible, silenced, or squelched in general debate.”

So the idea of group polarization has to be seen as dangerous where it does not become associated with deliberation of some kind – even within an insulated group as:

“The great benefit of deliberating enclaves is that positions may emerge that otherwise would not, and that deserve to play a larger role both within the enclave and within the heterogeneous public.”

But this is only true if these enclaves continue to expose themselves to other ideas – ie the same issue of the Daily Me exists for groups:

“But for these improvements to occur, members must not insulate themselves from competing positions.”

All of this is summed up for me when he says:

“There is a valuable lesson about possible uses of communications technologies to produce convergence, and possibly even learning, among people who disagree with one another. If people hear a wide range of arguments, they are more likely to be moved in the direction of those who disagree with them,”

(as an aside – Sunstein also believes that “Polarization is far less likely to occur when such (media conglomerate) intermediaries dominate the scene.”” Which is I believe only the case when the media are editing with proper balance – see what Castell’s has to say about this).

However I think Sunstein is right when he says:

“Free speech and free press are not mere luxuries or tastes of the most educated classes; they increase the likelihood that government will actually be serving people’s interests.”

Its interesting in reading an American talk about free speech – its so entwined in the constitution for them that they discuss it in legal rather than the moral terms that might be used in the UK.

Public spaces

The next section of the book is very close to my own ideas around online civic spaces:

“One lesson is that a democracy “may be enhanced, rather than impeded, by gathering its citizens in a single public space set aside for receiving and discussing reliable reports on the issues of the day.””

Sunstein seems able to balance the tensions which arise in trying to achieve a democratic environment within an essentially commercially funded space. One element of this are some very interesting thoughts around the convergence of the citizen and the consumer. I have always tended to think of these being two distinct roles for the individual because much of the work I do is around trying to develop the poor atrophied citizen role and beating back the consumer – and Sunstein is sympathetic this this:

“in their capacity as citizens, people often seek policies and goals that diverge from the choices they make in their capacity as consumers.”

Sunstein brings these two roles together when he talks about freedom of speech:

“The fundamental concern of this book is to see how unlimited consumer options might compromise the preconditions of a system of freedom of expression, which include unchosen exposures and shared experiences.”

Again – the assumption of the ‘freedom’ of the internet really only holds up when we have government in place to ensure this is the case (take China as a case in point). However its more complex than that the WWW was founded on a principle of free and open data and despite the fact that it now survives mainly through consumer activity rather than through government or social funding these first design assumptions continue to influence online culture.   Sunstein says:

“the free-speech principle should be read in light of the commitment to democratic deliberation. In other words, a central point of the free-speech principle is to carry out that commitment.”

But then he goes on to talk about the difference between freedom in a consumer context and freedom in a democratic context. Consumer freedom is about access and choice where democratic freedom is about equality and openness. Fascinating differences which show the light hand which government needs in order to regulate to protect the democratic principle at the same time as not inhibiting the consumer culture which supports it.

“Controls on public debate are uniquely damaging because they impair the process of deliberation that is a precondition for political legitimacy.”

However some controls are essential in the face the consumer driven media and the daily me. Sunstein of course says this very clearly:

“My basic claims have been that the First Amend-merit in large part embodies a democratic ideal, that it should riot be identified with the notion of consumer sovereignty, and that it is not an absolute. The core requirement of the free-speech principle is that with respect to politics, government must remain neutral among points of view.”

There are many elements of this whole section of the book which make you realise the differences between UK and US politics and media – all very interesting but not something I am going to discuss here as its a bit off topic for me – however I will say the more you read on this the more you love the BBC….

So he throws the responsibility for balancing these tensions strongly onto the citizen and suggests cultural changes which are needed in order support democratic deliberation:

“It also depends on some kind of public domain in which a wide range of speakers have access to a diverse public-and also to particular institutions and practices, against which they seek to launch objections. It also demands not only a law of free expression, but also a culture of free expression, in which people are eager to listen to what their fellow citizens have to say.”

“We could also imagine a culture where aspirations of this kind were supported rather than undermined by private and public institutions. In such a culture, websites would frequently assist people in their desire to learn about other opinions, even opinions different from those of the websites’ creators. In such a culture, it would be common to provide links to sites with a wide range of views. And in such a culture, government would attempt, through minimally intrusive measures and perhaps only through moral suasion, to ensure that the system of communications was a help rather than a hindrance to democratic self-government.”

I think Sunstein’s analysis of the issues around online democratic deliberation are spot on – however I am not sure that the “moral suasion” of government is going to create this deliberative culture. Rather than moral interventions I think we need government to support the change in culture in other ways – by opening itself to listen responsively to well run deliberations even if these are run outside of government. This might mean finding a way to integrate constructive hyperlocal websites into the decision making process and engaging with the deliberation where it is happening naturally.

But its more than just listening – we also need to start to value deliberation over media campaigning and to make it clear that some issues need proper thought – not just a yes or no answer. And to perhaps point out to people that decision making happens in stages and that deliberation only happens after the agenda has been set – and that the public are perhaps best suited to set the agenda and then to delegate the deliberation to representatives of one kind or another. This last point is very resonant with something else Sunstein says:

“Many people are fully prepared to develop an interest in topics that they have not selected and in fact know nothing about. To work well, a deliberative democracy had better have many such people.”

I’m going to leave it there – because I too hope that there are many such people out there.

\

Advertisements