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Text Reflection: Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com

December 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Republic.com, a 2002 book written by Cass Sunstein, the author considers our ironic state of flux in which more tech and communication leads to a less informed citizenry. Sunstein urges recognition of these dangers and suggests (gently) that society re-tool the internet to provide users with easier access and awareness of differing views. Sunstein fears fragmentation and a cloistered population whose difficulty of access, lack of interest or general inability lead to a society in which pragmatism is discarded in favor of stronger, more emotionally driven ideas.

Sunstein presents a dual existence of human kind hinging on two mentalities: the consumer and the democratic citizen. He cautions on confusing these two roles and suggests that popular media appeals largely to the consumer mentality and distracts the population from more “large-group” focused thinking of democratic perspectives towards a more individually centered, consumer perspective.

The author seems nervous at the suggestion of greater government intervention. At the core of the text is the presentation of a problem and the provision of possible solutions. Sunstein’s major problem is an uneducated population who he fears will grow only more unaware as an internet appealing to individual perspectives continues to grow and crowd out other media forms. Sunstein wants a “public forum” on the internet and cautions that without it we’ll only lose touch with the rational opinions need to compromise and create a republic functioning not for the individual but for the entire population.

Curiously, Sunstein has some caution in suggesting his solution. He wants government intervention but concedes this is not ideal. Instead, he urges a more comfortable solution in the form of website owners who in placing links to opposing sites or material to better educate their readers would provide the audience with a more diverse access point for learning. This is a dated text and reveals much about the initial perspectives of the internet world. Sunstein falls victim to the “mistaken paradigm” in which an old model of media is used to explain a newer form of media. The internet is not like newspapers or televisions for numerous reasons- the most powerful relating to the interaction between creator and audience.

Despite Sunstein’s fears, a cloistered audience is created by all forms of media. In an environment where a multitude of stimuli exist we can only focus on a select cluster of sources. We cannot be aware of all perspectives or resources and are ultimately drawn to those that meet our subscribed-to perspectives. The confirmation bias works to establish this perspective. Additional links would be helpful but an internet page is prime real estate for content that a creator would be foolish to sacrifice to a competitor’s link. Democracy on the internet comes in the form of an experienced user whose critical thinking can recognize the bias of a source and the importance of a diverse exploration of material.

One great idea presented in the text is a government created site to function as a “public forum.” Sunstein moves away from policing already created sites and shifts to the creation of new material in this arena. According to Sunstein this public arena site would be created by a government entity and would provide an index of material and a forum for public discussion on issues. This centralized location would be beneficial to a political system in desperate need of windows to the populace. This additional resource is a great idea but any moves to control or re-tool the material on the internet is misguided and largely out of touch with the reality of this new form of media.

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