12 Oct 2009

Decimals are sooooo much better.

October 12, 2009 501A, assignments Comments Off

I’m getting a little frustrated, because every time I have an idea, the readings in some way address it (and usually better) a few weeks later. This time, it’s Cass R. Sunstein’s “Democracy and Filtering.”

At least last time I was smart enough to wait to talk about fractionalization, even though I wasn’t about democracy. Oh well, at least I went more in a public policy direction.

Sunstein addresses something I think is really important: that content customization is detrimental to democratic society, because people will self-limit information to that which does not challenge their own worldview.

People already do this, to some degree, by where they live, what religious institution they attend, the choice of their friends — many, many ways in which people connect, associate and draw ideas from those around them. In essence, if we think of work-of-mouth as important social communication (here’s Oldenburg again) then we, in some ways, select our sounding boards to reflect ourselves.

But even if we choose the physical or traditional media we consume, we are still exposed to more information about more subjects than we would choose for ourselves. As Sunstein said:

People should be exposed to materials they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view we have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself.

This, then, brings up several questions: why is there this push for increased customization? Why are people drawn to that which reflects only their own ideas? IS THERE A THIRD QUESTION? (Should there be?)

First, people are drawn to those that reflect their own ideas because there’s a certain shared energy there — the idea of being and acting within a community of individuals that share a certain passion, a certain worldview. While this may be damaging (talk to hipsters on the LES or members of the SBC — and I think members of either group won’t understand the other acronym right away, which is kind of amusing-and-sad) it can also reinvigorate information systems, as Axel Bruns points out in his critique of Wikinews.

Second, people tend seek reinforcement over challenge. We look for groups that reflect our own thinking, which increases our conviction, as Sunstein points out in his discussion of the tendency of people to become more extreme in their ideas when surrounded by people who hold similar opinions. Again, this is true on the Internet and IRL (hipsters and the SBC again), again, which damages democracy. This is why people consume right-wing talk radio and/or The Daily Show and claim to be well-informed, even though they often don’t consume many other types of media. (How often do you hear opinions out of people’s mouths you heard out of Jon Stewart’s or Glenn Beck’s the night before?)

Which is why the increased customization exists in the first place. Targeted advertising is potentially very profitable. And the more you, as a consumer, exhibit your own preferences through behavior on the web, the more targeted things can become, especially in the news industry, where a lot of people see this as the salvation of the advertising-related business model.

But capitalism isn’t democracy. Things don’t work the same way in both systems, even when the systems cooperate on many levels.

And my whole point here is that very few things in this world are a total bad or a total good. Many people seem to think fractionalization a bad thing when it comes to culture (and democracy, very much so). But I’d argue that fractionalization can be a good thing — it keeps us all from living in an echo chamber by increasing the number of chambers we have to move through — as long as we, as individuals, hold some things in common, such as a shared sense that we are making the choice to live and engage within those fractions. It’s important to not only understand that, but allow experiences outside of those groups or interests to inform actions inside.

In other words, members of a democratic civil society should keep an open mind and seek out intellectual challenges and people (and information sources) who stimulate them intellectually. It’s a question of “We all agree that music is an important part of our lives, now lets talk about the interesting things we’re listening to” versus “Let’s discuss the relative merits of The Arcade Fire and Coldplay” or even “LOLOL, TAYLOR SWIFT SUXXXX.” One is better for a civil society than two or three.

Again, for fractionalization to be beneficial, there has to be a shared commitment to productive and rational discourse.  I’m not advocating deliberative democracy as a workable system in the U.S. (and I don’t think Sunstein is either) but there does have to be adherence to a process of thoughtful decision-making over emotional adherence to a particular worldview on an individual level. Fractionalization is good that it expands perspectives and content, allowing more information into the decisionmaking process.

Which is not to say that one wouldn’t come to the same conclusion following careful exploration and consideration that one’s emotions might have led one to in the first place. (Like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which does definitely and absolutely suck in all forms, no exploration necessary.) It’s just that the nuances are important. Nothing exists in black or white.

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