Information Cocoons

Thomas Nagel

  • republic.com by Cass Sunstein
    Princeton, 224 pp, £12.95, April 2001, ISBN 0 691 07025 3

One of the most remarkable effects of the Internet is that it permits unlimited specialisation of contacts and information. If you’re looking for an out-of-print book on an esoteric subject, you can find out instantly where there are copies of it in second-hand bookstores from Iceland to Australia, compare prices and conditions, and order it in a few seconds. You can read what people all over the world have to say on any topic that interests you, join in discussion with others who share that interest, and communicate your own ideas to the scattered community of specialists even in an arbitrarily narrow field – a community that could hardly exist without this possibility of electronic identification and expression. The availability of specialised networks applies to any type of interest whatever, and they are proliferating rapidly.

Cass Sunstein, a leading American Constitutional lawyer, is duly appreciative of this expansion of possibilities, but he wants to raise the alarm about another of its consequences, like those dire warnings of possible side-effects that come with every patent cold remedy. In this short, journalistic broadside he argues that the power the Internet gives each one of us to control deliberately what information and opinions we are exposed to – to tailor a communicative world to our prior interests and convictions – is a threat to democracy. The threat is that the choices made by individuals will add up collectively to a fragmentation of society so pervasive that the public sphere will cease to exist, and we will be left with multiple like-minded subgroups whose members talk only to their fellow members and never to those with whom they disagree, and who are exposed only to the kinds of opinions they want to hear.

If this happened, it would be a threat to democracy because on the deliberative, republican conception which Sunstein favours, democracy does not work merely by summing up the disparate private preferences of all the members of a society. Rather, it is supposed to force them to arrive at collective decisions by public debate, carried out partly through their elected representatives, and driven by the need to persuade one another or at least to arrive at mutually acceptable compromises. Sunstein fears that without the public space provided by ‘general interest intermediaries’ such as large-circulation newspapers, magazines and network television, there will no longer be any place where these debates can be had, in full view of the voters. There will be nothing that most people can’t help being exposed to – nothing that simply comes at them without their choosing it.

Sunstein frames the issue as an opposition between two conceptions of the value of freedom of expression: one based on consumer sovereignty, which is individualistic, and the other based on political sovereignty, which is public. Consumer sovereignty protects every individual’s right to say and hear what he wants, but gives no one the right to be heard. Political sovereignty, under the ideal of deliberative democracy, requires some rights of common access to the public forum, even if it means imposing on other people’s attention by haranguing them with speeches in the public square or handing out leaflets on the sidewalk. The first can clearly justify prohibitions against censorship, but the second is needed to justify the less familiar legal protection under the US Constitution of streets, parks and even shopping centres as venues for free expression. And Sunstein believes that even when we are thinking about the circumstances in which censorship is and is not justified, political sovereignty should rule: the protection of political speech as an essential condition of democracy should be regarded as the core of freedom of expression. Though it is tendentious to describe the individualistic value as ‘consumer’ sovereignty, there is an important issue of principle here, to which I shall return.

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