Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

Last Thursday April 10 MIT hosted a debate/discussion between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein (audio can be found here). Both are Harvard Law Professors (Sunstein coming here from Chicago in the fall) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion became very philosophical. Both have written prolifically on technology and our future, especially Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and Sunstein’s Infotopia and 2.0. Henry Jenkins is moderating. he is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and Professor of Humanities at MIT. Jenkins is using those three books as the basis for his questions.

The first question Jenkins poses asks for metrics on how to measure the quality of online democracy. He quotes from both Sunstein and Benkler’s books to set off the dueling:

Sunstein1: “Any well functioning society depends on relationships of trust and reciprocity, in which people see their fellow citizens as potential allies, willing to help, and deserving of help when help is needed.”

Sunstein2: “A well functioning society of free expression must have two distinct requirements: first, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance, and second, many or most citizens have a range of common experiences.”

Benkler: “The new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.”

Jenkins asks the professors to give the current space a grade. Sunstein ranks it a C- since there is still babble and chaos and cruelty, even though there is order and brilliance and ingenuity. He likes Benkler’s idea of a self-reflective culture willing ot appraise itself, but his sense is that the internet is the opposite of self-reflection and provides only for entrenchment of pre-existing views.

Benkler gives a higher grade than C- and ascribes this to the importance of the degree of constraint on action being lower on the internet – this is determinative of how evaluate “normative life lived as a practical matter”. He agrees that a well-functioning society depends on trust and reciprocity but finds this in existence on the web through pervasive collaboration. He contrasts this with the authority driven approach traditionally used by the main stream media.

Benkler states that Sunstein takes too passive a view of citizenship in his description of the requirements of a system of free expression. He doesn’t envision citizens as passively exposed to streams of information and equipped with some pre-existing common frame of reference. Benkler imagines a capacity to act, intake, and filter for accreditation and salience, and ultimately set the current agenda. He sees freedom of expression manifested in part by participating in production of the agenda and claims this view will make the networked public sphere more attractive than Sunstein sees it, which will have the result that main stream media will appear more attractive.

At this Sunstein concedes his grade of C- was probably too harsh and he meant it in comparison to a realistic ideal, rather than a historic comparison. We’re doing better than in 1975. In response to Benkler’s point about passivity he states that his calls for exposure to new materials and shared experiences are only necessary conditions and they act as a counterweight to the notion that with unlimited free choice comes a capacity for self-sorting of internet communication. His sense is that “real internet geeks” come close to being libertarians in the University of Chicago tradition, so this notion of capacity becomes idealized as follows: if you are sovereign over your choices we have reached the ideal. Sunstein resists this and says we need to judge by outcomes: in a well functioning system you don’t construct a Daily Me and your attention needs to be grabbed or else you’ll never realize your interest in other issues. Self-sorting alone is too risky to be a reliable mechanism for people to get a good understanding of issues, so his two conditions become necessary features of the web and preconditions for a well functioning democratic society.

He thinks this paints a picture of people’s interaction with the web as more passive than what he meant. Active citizenship is fueled by shared experiences and unanticipated exposure to new materials and ideas. He cites national holidays like Martin luther King day or July Fourth and enabling us to see each others as involved in a common enterprise. This engenders a participatory approach to societal life among citizens.

Benkler responds that the difference between his and Sunstein’s position is power and context, freedom and constraint. He questions whether Sunstein’s proposed necessary condition of a common experience would result in something closer to traditional main stream media being desirable, where the sharing of experience was often through a government controlled agency or a newspaper. Benkler defines an elite as someone who can affect the agenda and observes that today that is a few million versus how it used to be a few thousand. So power is being diffused in myriad different ways. The example he gives is from the net roots of the Democratic party: citizens can now move their donations to marginal seats away from the war chest of safe seats rather than this being an internal decision by the party bosses. This freedom, what Benkler calls the “I can affect” freedom, is what he is interested in.

The second question Jenkins poses also starts with quotes, and he asks whether we are in danger of excessive fragmentation on the web:

Sunstein: “A communications system granting individuals an unlimited power to filter threatens to create excessive fragmentation.”

Benkler: (the babble hypothesis) “The networked information economy provides varied alternative platforms for communication, so that is moderated the power of the traditional mass media model, where ownership of the means of communication enables an owner to select what others view, and thereby to affect their perceptions for what they can and cannot do… This gives individuals a significantly greater role in authoring their own lives, by enabling them to perceive a broader range of possibilities, and by providing them a richer baseline against which to measure the choices they in fact make.”

Benkler points out that this is really an empirical question – do we have a common agenda and where did it come from? – and empirical work ongoing at the Berkman Center suggests that we don’t see the Daily Me but a structured public sphere with many salient points and a shallow highly linked network. Benkler says important things get picked up in this structure. His example is Google News – the opposite of fragmentation, and he points to communities that that focus on certain subjects and raise awareness of their issues to the mainstream. This is more fragmented than the main stream media but far from the Daily Me.

Sunstein gives his example of people from Colorado Springs becomes more extreme in their right wing views after deliberation while people from Boulder become more extreme in their left wing views after deliberation. He suggests we need empirical work to determine how much the internet operates like the Colorado groups. He points to the fact that only 1% of’s readers are Republican. One experiment he suggests is to discover whether the patterns of usage on YouTube replicate the Colorado experience.

Benkler responds that fragmentation over political issues is even more pronounced in face to face discussion, this is “how we are, even in the best of coffee houses,” and certainly happens on the radio and on tv (fox news) and he thinks the web is actually improving the cross talk between people on these contentious issues. The question becomes “what s the arc of culture that brings us to the kind of polarization we saw, say, with the 1994 election?” There must be other models of polarization since the net was not around in politics then. He can’t imagine a non-authoritarian way of changing this.

Sunstein explains his inspiration for this work has been the Jane Jacobs book The Life and Death of Great American Cities which illustrates serendipity: when you walk along a street and see a building that just stuns you because it is so foreign to your existence. That surprise can alter you – what you care about, your esthetic sense, maybe even your political sense. This surprise from the building is a product of the architect, and so too the net has an architect that allows for this self-insulation. He would like the internet to build an anti-echo chamber norm into it’s architecture. He believes there is some hardwiring behind our tendency to cluster but he feels societal norms can have an important impact in changing this. Maybe self-insularity can become embarrassing. And maybe this isn’t so unnatural because of our human love for serendipity.

The third question asks for their impression of Wikipedia and the nature of collective intelligence in society.

Both love Wikipedia. Sunstein likens Hayek’s theory of information aggregation in prices to the disbursed nature of information in society. The professors differ over the amount of hierarchy required to maintain the website, with Benkler thinking it is less hierarchical and authoritarian because of Wikipedia’s largely democratic governance. Benkler also notes that Wikipedia gives us a way to study under what conditions engender trust, generosity, and reciprocity. Sunstein recalls the Siegenthaler debacle to remind people Wikipedia can go wrong. Sunstein admires the dignity-infused ethos of the Encyclopedia Britannica: things that are private or cast indignity on the person or focus too much on one part of a person’s life, even if true, would not be included in the biographical article.

The professors were largely in agreement for the final question: motivations for citizen participation. Benkler asserts that if you think you can affect the agenda “you walk through the world with different eyes and different ears.” That is, you structure what you see as arguments rather than complaints to people who are similarly disabled as you. People acquire these skills via practice so we should be tolerate of children playing with technology since they are probably teaching themselves these skills. Sunstein notes that it is worth distinguishing between consumers and citizens since the motivations are different since consumers needs to know things and be active in selecting what they want. For example, the famous Learned Hand quote, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right” is wholly inapplicable to consumers.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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