requiem for certainty

Sunstein’s “ 2.0”

with 4 comments

So I just finished Sunstein’s revision of this evening, published by Princeton UP last year as 2.0.  I’m happy that someone as intelligent, engaged, and interesting as Sunstein is turning his attention to internet practices and their affects on democratic practices.  This is an important topic and too-much neglected by political theorists and political philosophers.  So Sunstein’s book deserves reading if for that reason alone.  Despite all the praise I might want to lavish on the book, however, there is also a good deal of criticism I would want to heap on it.  I will focus just on the criticisms for now.

Here is a quick summary of the book.  Chapter One begins with a fairly strong statement of concern about the adverse affects the internet is wreaking on contemporary liberal democracy.  Two themes are crucial here: the increasing capabilities for personalized filtering enabled by the internet (Sunstein riffs on Negroponte’s ‘Daily Me’) and the decreasing presence of “general-interested intermediaries” online (presumably organs such as national newspapers and evening news broadcasts).  Chapter Two expands on this by describing the importance of general-intersted intermediaries in terms of their provision of public forums.  The chapter ends by recounting three problems these two themes raise: political fragmentation as leading to polarization (treated in Chapter Three), a lack of solidarity goods as a result of this (Chap. Four), and an increasnig tendency to think of freedom as preference satisfcation (Chap. Five).  After this tour Chapters 7 and 8 attempt to dispell familiar views which Sunstein rejects, namely that the internet should not be regulated (it already is regulated Sunstein insists with Lessig), and that rights of free speech mean that we should not regulate the internet (free speech is intended for democracy Sunstein says).  Chapter Nine puts forward some proposals for how we might better regulate the internet to achieve our democratic goals.  Chapter Ten ends with a positive reference to Mill and Dewey as the heroes of Sunstein’s argument.
Time to lay out just a few concerns.
Concerning Sunstein’s core argument that internet-induced social fragmentation will lead to political polarization I would tend to see things differently.  Sunstein in fact tends to identify fragmentation with polarization thus eliding the possibility that fragmentation might lead to something else.  I think it does lead to something else.  Namely, pluralization.  Now pluralization might assist polarization in some cases but it need not do so in all cases.  The pluralization of perspectives and points of view made available by internetworking make it far easier to get at the logic of opposed or alternative points of view than was possible before.  Internetworking also makes it easier to understand how certain arguments, policies, political perceptions gain traction on the ground because you can sniff around blogs and see why people believe what they believe (rather than accepting the take of self-appointed pundits as to why this or that view ought to be endorsed).
Now whether fragmentation leads to polarization or pluralization probably depends on the role played by “filtering” and “general-interest intermediaries” in ushering fragmentation along.  I tend to view the relation between these processes differently than does Sunstein.  Sunstein thinks of “filtering” as a more individuated activity such that a more common activity of filtering by “general-interest” broadcast conglomerates is an a better alternative.  I see filtering taking place in both instances.  One way to filter is for persons to filter their content for themselves by, for instance, using a feed reader to aggregate and organize syndicated feeds that are of interest.  Often users use these aggregating services to bring together content from general-interest intermediaries like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times with their friends blogs and maybe some of the more popular blogs pertaining to their professions and pasttimes.  Now another way to filter content is to let someone else do it for you.  This is what the “general-interest” broadcast model that Sunstein prefers enables.  The large national newspapers and evening news programs are in large part filtering mechanisms that distribute selected content to a wide swath of persons.  That’s filtering.  It may not lead to fragmentation but one can see how if it does enable fragmentation it enables a kind of fragmentation that is polarizing rather pluralizing, diversifying, and democratizing.
The question should not be whether or not we engage in filtering of content, information, and knowledge.  The question should be what kind of filtering we use to sort our content, information, and knowledge.  Filtering in a complex informational environment is inevitable.  It is simply unavoidable for us today.  What we should ask is: Will that process of filtering be democratic or not?  Dewey famously asserted that “democratic ends require democratic means for their realization.”  The question is how we can use filtering, which is inevitable, as a democratic instrumentality for better realizing democracy?  Sunstein goes the way of Walter Lippmann, elitism, and filtering by the few for the many.  I prefer the way of Dewey, democracy, and filtering by the many for themselves.  Filtering ought to be self-governed and internetworking enables self-governed filtering this far better than the broadcast paradigm ever could have pretended to.
I will also mention briefly that Sunstein offers an interesting discussion of the blogosphere in Chapter Six.  Here he criticizes Posner’s argument that Hayek’s liberalism ably models the blogosphere.  I am more sympathetic to Posner on this score.  He is right that the blogosphere is a decentralized mechanism that provides means for aggregating and integrating a diversity of information that would otherwise remain disparate.  But that point about ‘decentralized’ instrumentalities for communication was made long before Hayek by Dewey and James.  I think they provie a better way than Hayek of understanding the potentialities, especially the democratic potentialities, of internetworking.  This is because, unlike Hayek, they do not insist that a decentralized mechanisms (i.e., a decentralized economy) entails that ethical activity will on average tend to work against economic efficiency.  It is debatable if Hayek actually makes this argument but I could cite plenty of sources where he says pretty much this (think of all the noise all the Austrians make about wertfrei economics).  It is by contrast not at all debatable that Dewey and James though that decentralized democracy would enrich rather than hinder our capacities for ethical commitments.
This brings me to a final quibbling scholarly point.  Dewey is not the hero of Sunstein’s argument.  The real heroes of his book are Mill and justice Brandeis.  Dewey and justice Holms offer an alternative vision of deomcracy and its strengths.  Rather than being insistent on this, however, I will just note that I am anyway am entirely pleased to see Sunstein drawing so generously from Dewey.  It’s not that he gets Dewey wrong or perverts him or any of that, it’s rather that there is much more in Dewey that Sunstein does not draw on, and if he did he would find that many of his arguments might take him in a quite different direction.

Written by Colin Koopman

July 24, 2008 at 6:50 pm

Posted in dewey, hayek, internet, mill

Tagged with , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Hello Professor,

    What you wrote about filtering was interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about social bookmarking sites like,, or but I think they are relevant to the discussion.

    With these sites users submit web pages they think are interesting, and other users visit and vote for the page if they like it. Each of these sites has a slightly different scheme, but they all display the most popular links on their front page.

    This seems to be a hybrid model of filtering. On the one hand users are being fed information from a “general-interest intermediary,” but on the other hand the information that intermediary displays is decided on democratically. Any user that wants to submit a story to be voted on can, any user that wants to search through to pool of submitted stories can. I suggest you check out these sites if you haven’t already, I think you would be interested in them. Digg is the most popular, and the one I use the most.


    Matthew Gregory-Browne

    Matthew Gregory-Browne

    August 3, 2008 at 6:36 pm

  2. Yes this is all good stuff and very interesting. I am not a big a fan of Digg or Technorati as others but I use them from time to time indeed. For my purposes I find that most helpful are RSS readers collecting informartion from all kinds of different sources. Though, like everyone, I’m always looking for more.

    One thing I’d note is that these filters (Digg, etc.) do not always scrape information from “general-interest intermediaries” though they often do. They often enough get their info from much humbler sources like your everyday blog. Delicious bookmarking is more like that, wouldn’t you say?

    Other interesting stuff lately is collaborative search filtering, i.e. Mahalo and Wikia Search (, etc.. Check those out. Part of me wants to start contributing fairly heavy to Wikia Search but it would be a big project. All this stuff is extraordinarily fascinating. It’s also entirely perplexing how it’s changing things. But it seems clear that it is changing something.


    August 4, 2008 at 9:06 pm

  3. […] of the core epistemic, civic, and moral conditions for democratic culture.  See, for instance, my post on Cass Sunstein’s 2.o.  I disagree with Sunstein et. al. but I find their arguments worth […]

  4. 【在庫あり!週末特価!】

    mcm 財布

    August 7, 2013 at 7:23 am

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