Create your own world on the Internet - and democracy crumbles

Imagine a world where each of us gets to choose exactly what we will read, see, and hear; where people interested only in financial news will never have to look at stories about polluted lakes or political repression in China; where football fans can skip news altogether. In such a world, liberals, conservatives, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, radical feminists, racists, and anti-Semites need never hear, see, or read anything but amplified versions of the views they already hold.

That world, warns Cass Sunstein in his succinct, eminently sensible little book, "," is the world in which we soon may be living.

The problem of people with closed minds, Sunstein admits, existed before the Internet, but the new technology has made it easier than ever to allow each of us to receive "filtered" versions of reality. Whereas readers of traditional newspapers and general-interest magazines encounter, willy-nilly, a variety of different kinds of articles and opinions, it is now becoming possible for us, as it were, to design our "own" newspapers.

The Internet reader who can set his preferences in place beforehand, deliberately limit his focus and screening out unwanted information and ideas, poses - in Sunstein's view - a threat to the future of democracy.

Especially disturbing are the findings he cites about the phenomenon called "group polarization." When persons holding a particular point of view find themselves in a group of like-minded people, they tend not only to confirm their biases, but also to move toward even more extreme positions, having had their views so strongly reinforced.

This is truly alarming when we consider the number of Internet hate-group sites. Yet there is also cause for alarm when we realize that even people who hold more socially acceptable views on either side of issues like abortion, gun control, gay rights, or immigration may end up creating their own personal "echo chambers," increasing their feelings of self-righteousness, never listening to a contrary viewpoint, never taking in new information that might change their minds or move them toward compromise.

"In general," he notes, "it is precisely the people most likely to filter out opposing views who need to hear such views."

The blithely apolitical "idiots," on the other hand, cheerfully eschewing public issues in favor of devoting themselves to everything from personal finance, sports, and recipes to celebrity gossip and pornography, also constitute a threat to democracy. Citing Justice Louis Brandeis's comment that "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people,"

Sunstein argues that citizens of a democracy have responsibilities that go beyond being mere consumers. It is one thing to think about what each of us wants to buy, but quite another to consider what we, as a nation, should do. An individual consulting only his immediate convenience and self-interest would not necessarily refrain from polluting or choose to contribute to national defense.

The model of the marketplace is at the core of many a current conundrum surrounding the issue of free speech, be it regulating the Internet or imposing campaign spending limits. (For a trenchant analysis of this overly simplistic approach, see Patricia Borsook's recent "Cyberselfish," reviewed June 8, 2000.)

Sunstein insists that the marketplace is a misleading model, because ideas and policies are not commodities to be purchased for private use or pleasure. The aim of information and discussion is to help us toward the broader goal of discovering the truth and formulating fair public policies.

Sunstein concludes by suggesting ways to make the Internet more responsible to the needs of a deliberative democracy. Highly partisan websites could be required to carry links to sites with opposing views. Publicly or privately funded websites known as "deliberate domains" could be created to open up discussion of a wide range of public issues.

A professor at the University of Chicago Law School, Sunstein has specialized in First Amendment matters, and he feels confident that guidelines imposed to foster discussion and dissemination of information are hardly the same as regulations that muzzle freedom of speech.

His book deserves a wide audience and precisely the kind of open-minded, thoughtful consideration that he would like to nurture on the Internet.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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