[iwar] more NYT reporting on culture

From: St. Clair, James (jstclair@vredenburg.com)
Date: 2001-06-04 07:27:10

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Date: Mon, 4 Jun 2001 07:27:10 -0700 
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Subject: [iwar] more NYT reporting on culture 
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Adding Up the Costs of Cyberdemocracy

As Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, saw
himself being skewered on various Web sites discussing his recent book,
"Republic.com," he had the odd satisfaction of watching some of the book's
themes unfold before his eyes. On the conservative Web site
"FreeRepublic.com," the discussion began by referring relatively mildly to
Mr. Sunstein's book about the political consequences of the Internet as
"thinly veiled liberal." But as the discussion picked up steam, the rhetoric
of the respondents, who insisted that they had not and would not read the
book itself, became more heated. Eventually, they were referring to Mr.
Sunstein as "a nazi" and a "pointy headed socialist windbag." 
The discussion illustrated the phenomenon that Mr. Sunstein and various
social scientists have called "group polarization" in which like-minded
people in an isolated group reinforce one another's views, which then harden
into more extreme positions. Even one of his critics on the site
acknowledged the shift. "Amazingly enough," he wrote, "it looks like
Sunstein has polarized this group into unanimous agreement about him." An
expletive followed. 
To Mr. Sunstein, such polarization is just one of the negative political
effects of the Internet, which allows people to filter out unwanted
information, tailor their own news and congregate at specialized Web sites
that closely reflect their own views. A "shared culture," which results
partly from exposure to a wide range of opinion, is important for a
functioning democracy, he argues. But as the role of newspapers and
television news diminishes, he wrote, "and the customization of our
communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting,
shared communities in danger of dissolving."
This pessimistic assessment is a sign of just how sharply scholarly thinking
about the Web has shifted. In its first years, the Internet was seen
euphorically as one of history's greatest engines of democracy, a kind of
national town hall meeting in which everyone got to speak. As an early guru
of cyberspace, Dave Clark of M.I.T., put it in 1992: "We reject kings,
presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code."
Now, with the examples of business and government control offered by the
explosion of Web commerce, the merger of America Online and Time-Warner, the
Microsoft antitrust case and the litigation over Napster, that is no longer
the case.
Andrew Shapiro, a guest lecturer at Yale Law School and the author of "The
Control Revolution," said that the early euphoria over cyberspace had been
replaced "by a kind of 'technorealism,' a second generation of Internet
books" that are much more critical. 
An example is the 1999 book "Code" by Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at
Stanford University, who argues that the enormous amount of personal
information people reveal when they shop online, browse Web sites or call up
information offers extraordinary opportunities for both governments and
businesses to control their lives. "Left to itself," he wrote, "cyberspace
will become a perfect tool of control." 
Mr. Sunstein's assessment is somewhat different from Mr. Lessig's, though
still negative. "His is closer to Orwell's '1984'; mine is more like 'Brave
New World,' " Mr. Sunstein explained. If to Mr. Lessig he danger is
government or corporate control, to Mr. Sunstein it is a world of seemingly
infinite choice, where citizens are transformed into consumers and a common
political life is eroded.
Both agree, however, that society must begin to make more conscious choices
about what it wants the Internet to be. Mr. Lessig's main point in "Code" is
that the Internet does not have a "nature." The world we think of as
"cyberspace," he said, is an environment created by the architecture of the
computer code that gave birth to the World Wide Web. 
Mr. Lessig's point is that because the Internet is based on "open source"
computer protocols that allow anyone to tap into it, it has a specific
character that can be, and is, modified all the time. Internet providers can
write software to allow users maximum privacy or to track and restrict their
movements to an extraordinary degree. The software engineers, as Percy
Bysshe Shelley said of poets, are the unacknowledged legislators of our
time. We must, Mr. Lessig said, acknowledge this reality and try to shape
"We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we
believe are fundamental, or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace
to allow those values to disappear," he writes.
Mr. Shapiro describes himself as more optimistic than Mr. Lessig or Mr.
Sunstein. "I came to see more potential in the Internet empowering
individuals, but we are all 'technorealists' in that we see personalization
and social fragmentation as features of the Net."
Other legal scholars agree that fragmentation and polarization have
increased with the Internet, but they do not necessarily see it as a
problem. "I do not mourn the demise of the domination of the main outlets of
news and information," said Peter Huber, a conservative legal scholar who is
a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of "Law and Disorder in
Cyberspace: Abolish the F.C.C. and Let Common Law Rule the Telecosm." "It's
true that the oracles of traditional authority, The New York Times, the
network news and the universities have lost power. Just look at the
declining market share of the major TV networks. But whether you regard that
as good or bad depends on where you sit." 
That doesn't mean he dismisses claims that new technology causes social
fragmentation; he just feels that the individual empowerment of the Internet
is well worth the price. "The Soviet Union had a 'shared culture' and one
source of information, 'Pravda,' " he said. "I think it's impossible to
judge what is the exact point at which you have the right mix of diversity
and common culture."
Mr. Sunstein said he was not talking about limiting diversity but rather the
insular way that most sites were structured. For example, he said, most
political Web sites have links only to other like-minded sites. Although he
stops short of calling for government intervention, he says, "We might want
to consider the possibility of ways of requiring or encouraging sites to
link to opposing viewpoints." 
Until the early 1980's, the Federal Communications Commission required
broadcasters to provide equal time to opposing viewpoints, a policy
eliminated during the Reagan administration. When critics of Mr. Sunstein's
book pointed out that his own site at the University of Chicago offered no
such links, he responded by including the Web addresses of two well-known
conservative colleagues.
What some political Web sites are already trying to do is figure out ways to
encourage more intelligent deliberation rather than simply name-calling and
"We are trying to design sites so that they promote diversity as well as a
sense of community," said Scott Reents, the president of two political Web
sites called E-ThePeople and Quorum.org that recently merged. 
The software design of the sites, Mr. Reents said in support of Mr. Lessig's
point, can shape discussion in important ways. For example, at Quorum.org
readers are asked to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a particular
posting; that item's placement is determined by reader reaction. (The site
tries to prevent people using multiple identities from voting more than once
by requiring visitors to register.) 
On other sites, a group of regular users rank the value of contributions,
and the rankings then determines their place on the "bulletin board." How
well that works, however, is an open question. When Mr. Sunstein tried to
intervene in a discussion of his own book on a techie Web site called
slashdot.org, his contribution was given a very low ranking. "I think maybe
they didn't believe I was the author of the book," he said. 
James Fishkin, a political scientist at the University of Texas, said that
such efforts at Web democracy follow the model of debate in ancient Sparta
called the Shout. "The idea of the Shout is that the candidate that got the
loudest applause or shout would win," he said. "Unless we make special
efforts to implement more ambitious democratic possibilities, the Internet,
left to its own devices, is going to give us an impoverished form of
democracy in the form of the Shout."
Mr. Fishkin is trying to follow the example of ancient Athens, whose
assemblies consisted of several hundred citizens who, after being chosen by
lot, would deliberate and vote. He has developed a technique called
"deliberative polling" and would like to bring the idea to the Internet.
"The idea is this," he said. "What would public opinion be like if people
were motivated to behave more like ideal citizens, if they had access to a
wealth of information and to competing arguments on a given issue?" 
Over the last decade Mr. Fishkin has collected a random group of several
hundred people and given them carefully prepared briefing documents on both
sides of a given issue. Participants question panels of experts and discuss
the issues in smaller groups with trained moderators so that no single
person is allowed to dominate discussion. After their deliberation, they are
then surveyed privately as in any opinion poll, but their views now reflect,
it is hoped, careful deliberation. Texas actually used the method to help
determine its energy policy, holding a series of deliberative polls between
1996 and 1998. "Because of it, there are now windmills all over the state of
Texas," Mr. Fishkin says.
Mr. Fishkin is hoping to use the Internet to conduct "deliberative polling"
on a much larger basis. To Mr. Lessig, deliberative polling is one of the
few hopeful developments when it comes the democracy and the Web. "If Jim
can transfer to cyberspace what he has done in real space, I think the
Internet could be very different," he said. 
Yet some view efforts to tame the Internet as doomed to failure. "I think
it's a waste of time," said Mr. Huber. "All this talk about `links' and so
forth is interesting intellectually, but by the time you try to implement it
the technology will be 10 years ahead. When online video becomes as
accessible as e-mail, the whole game will change again. And if you think
there is fragmentation now, you ain't seen nothing yet."
copyright New York Times



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