27 December 2009

worth a skim

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I mean, the guy obviously doesn't think much of yer basic American boob, but, well, he also blends in some good points made by Hedges and Sunstein in their latest books....
Of course, the Founding Fathers knew public debate could get ugly. Sunstein notes Alexander Hamilton's belief that the "jarring of parties" was a good thing because it would engender deliberation and, over time, a "republic of reasons."

Are we one today? Not as much as we could be, Sunstein thinks. His fundamental concern in Republic.com 2.0 is the Internet's potential for impeding deliberation between groups with opposing viewpoints, eventually increasing ideological rigidity and polarization to a point of no return. It's vastly easier to join like-minded Internet "enclaves" across the world than to drive across town for a meeting in which someone might challenge one's pre-established beliefs and positions. Sunstein walks readers through behavioral studies finding that when groups of like-minded individuals are isolated from different viewpoints, they tend toward consensus on the most extreme position held within the group.

At worst, Sunstein says, Internet-induced polarization could lead to social instability. "The danger is that through the mechanisms of persuasive arguments, social comparisons, and corroboration, members will move to positions that lack merit," he writes. "It is impossible to say, in the abstract, that those who sort themselves into enclaves will generally move in a direction that is desirable for society at large or even for its own members. It is easy to think of examples to the contrary, as, for example, Nazism, hate groups, terrorists, and cults of various sorts."

Clearly, the Internet has potential to create political good. Citizens have access to vast amounts of information and commentary. Even like-minded enclave proliferation can be good: The more there are, the greater the potential for inter-enclave discussion.

But a study of 1,400 liberal and conservative blogs found the vast majority of bloggers link only to like-minded blogs. Worse, another study showed that when "liberal" bloggers comment on "conservative" blog posts, and vice-versa, a plurality of comments simply cast contempt on opposing views. "Only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion. In this way, real deliberation is often occurring within established points of view, but only infrequently across them," Sunstein reports.

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