11 April 2008

Cass Sunstein, Yochai Benkler, and the Value of DailyKos

Cass Sunstein, author of Infotopia and Republic.com, and Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks (available for free online here), debated "the good, the bad and the ugly" of the digital world at a Communications Forum at MIT yesterday.

I came into the forum with some objections to Sunstein's analysis, and left with even more.

Sunstein rejects deliberation as a strategy, citing studies that show deliberative bodies either become more extreme in their views, or are more likely to err than prediction markets or even individuals. His favorite example is a study done in Colorado. Groups were asked to discuss a hot topic, such as gay rights, with each member submitting his or her thoughts on the issue both before and after deliberation. The study showed that individuals became more extreme in their views -- that is, the group polarized -- after deliberation.

Other studies he cites show that, for instance, a Republican judge on a panel with two other Republicans is makes more conservative judgments than he is alone, and is more liberal when amongst two Democratic judges. Again, the group polarizes to one extreme or the other, resulting in (in the case of a panel of judges) a harsher sentence or judgment than any individual judge might have handed down.

When it comes to teh internetz, Sunstein argues, the deliberative model combines with an echo chamber effect to create the "Daily Me," a kind of personalized news source which cocoons us in a bubble, keeping us from hearing other points of view. DailyKos is a typical example: a bunch of Democrats get together and complain about things amongst themselves. They aren't listening to alternative points of view, and because they're deliberating as a group, their points of view become more extreme, rather than more nuanced, through participation.

Here's where I begin to get frustrated. He wants to challenge Enlightenment principles of so-called rational man -- i.e., that people are fundamentally reasonable, and deliberation amongst reasonsable people leads to the best outcome -- but he doesn't take his argument all the way. In other words, he questions the value of deliberation itself, but still uses the foundational principles of deliberation (rational discourse, exposure to all points of view being necessary to make informed decisions) as her measuring stick for a healthy democracy.

This was patent in his criticism of DailyKos last night. He wanted to challenge DailyKos for creating an echo-chamber, for polarizing its members views, but did so because he believes DailyKos (or any other political site that is good for a democracy) should be a place where people of different beliefs exchange, debate and refine their points of view -- in other words, ironically, he wants it to be a deliberative space!

What if, instead, we see the polarizing effect of a site like DailyKos as its power? The folks on DailyKos don't visit the site to hear all sides of an issue, they go there to strengthen their belief system. As Sunstein says repeatedly, people like people who agree with them, and like themselves better after finding someone who agrees with them. DailyKos might tend to polarize points of view, but in doing so it also gives Democrats the courage to mobilize, to argue loudly about their beliefs in spaces where we really do come together to deliberate. Maybe the best model isn't an either/or, but a combination of polarizing spaces that give that strengthen individuals to speak more forcefully (and with more information, because of the aggregation that goes on in polarizing spaces) once they enter the public debate, a space for deliberation.

In America, individuals feel powerless. And if you do the math, most of them are, with voting power far below the "one person one vote" slogan we delude ourselves with. In a winner-take-all system like ours, a site like DailyKos may actually engender democracy by allowing groups to aggregate their power, to draw strength from numbers.

But to see this, we have to challenge the old model of citizenry that defines the Informed Citizen as she who seeks out all points of view before making a decision.

Of course, I should emphasize that I'm not saying there isn't danger in the echo-chamber. We see its failure in the Iraq War, in a President who surrounds himself with yes-men who don't challenge ideas they know are bad. And I understand why it's easy to see the same kind of failure in DailyKos. A few weeks ago, on a whim, I began a DK diary in which I wrote about my love for Ralph Nader -- a highly, highly charged topic on DailyKos. Within minutes, the post was inundated with hundreds of nasty comments from bitter Democrats who (probably because they're hanging out on DailyKos -- the result of the polarization effect!) insist, against all evidence to the contrary and, really, against all logic, that Ralph Nader stole the 2000 election. My feeble efforts to argue against this entrenched notion -- a notion that in my opinion just keeps Democrats feeling safe, keeps them from having to admit that they lost the election themselves -- were futile. No one was listening. At DailyKos, Ralph Nader is the boogeyman, and no one diary entry is going to change that.

I was angry at DailyKos, and angrier at Democrats. I fumed for awhile, and Herr Eremita got an earful of my ire. But I've come to see some of the subtleties in what was going on. Bringing up Ralph Nader in the DailyKos was a major transgression -- it challenged the safe, cozy bubble that community had created for itself. And while safe, cozy bubbles are bad if you're the President, and your job is to respect a diversity of opinions, in an internet community designed to mobilize (not fracture) a loose group of likeminded folks, it might not be such a bad thing. I'd like to see liberals get a little fire in their bellies -- maybe DailyKos helps that.

There's more to be said, some of it much more important and interesting than what I've written above. For instance, my CMS colleague Lana asked a smart question how ostensibly frivolous things like art or entertainment fit into Sunstein's or Benkler's models, both soaked in the dry rhetoric of law, policy and economics. Lana's question (and Henry Jenkins' subsequent addition) pointed out that spaces of play may actually be more diverse than spaces for "serious" issues. For instance, a forum for a popular television show exposes fans to others from all different political and social perspectives, and therefore (ironically) might result in more meaningful exchange than a site like DailyKos, which just begs for extremism. If this is true, the whole conversation needs to be redirected, or at least expanded, to include notions besides "freedom" and "democracy," the dry and burdened terms of political philosophy. Again, if we're going to challenge Enlightenment notions, we have to stop using them as our measuring stick for democratic success.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

I agree. I was there. I wanted to push him on DailyKos, too. Did you get the sense he gave up a lot of ground after every time Yochai spoke?