A Q&A with author Cass R. Sunstein
- What made you decide to do a follow up to Republic.com 2.0?
Funny: I just received, as I was starting to answer, a new note from the New York Times, starting: "Introducing My Times. Create your own page with your favorite sources of information." That's the basic answer. Personalization is everywhere. We are constantly asked, directly or indirectly, to create Our Own Whatever--containing and limited to our "favorite sources of information." Republicans do that; Democrats do it; environmentalists do it; terrorists do it; science fiction enthusiasts do it. That's a real problem, I think.
The first draft of Republic.com was written very quickly, and I thought that it would make sense to spend some real time on the problem, in a way that might get, a bit better, at some of the relationships among personalized choices, democracy, and freedom itself.
- What is the most significant change in the use of the internet since the first edition of Republic.com was first published? How do those changes affect your argument?
I think the biggest change is the rise of user-generated content. Think YouTube, Wikipedia, social networking, blogs, Facebook, much more. In some ways, this development undermines my argument, because there are lots of big, diverse communities out there. Wikipedia is a great example (and I use it a lot). On the other hand, user-generated content often supports my argument, because we're getting a ton of like-minded groups out there, talking and listening mostly to each other. It's not so great if there's a world of Fox News types and another world of MoveOn.org types, demonizing and caricaturing one another.
- What do you think the impact of blogs has been on political discourse? Have blogs increased or decreased the "echo chamber" or "information cocoon"?
I like blogs, and even contribute to a few. It's great if there's more information out there (and self-expression is good too). Also blogs can and do correct errors by the major media--and hold them to account. But I have to say that blogs have also increased the echo chamber effect. Many people just jump from one echo chamber to another, convincing themselves that one or another narrow view, of politics or consumer products or movies or more, offers them the whole picture. That's a big problem.
- The traditional news media seems to be suffering in the age of the internet with the loss of print advertising. What happens if traditional media dies? Does publishing on the web fill the same function in creating a common space as traditional print media, assuming the economics can be worked out?
Web publishing can create common spaces; it all depends on how we, the readers and sometimes the producers, react to technological change. If we sort ourselves into narrow groups, common spaces will be in big trouble. But there's no reason not to have common spaces on the Internet. There are lots of them out there.
- What is the role of the government in regulating the web in ways that will promote the sort of exchange of views that many believe is essential to a healthy public discourse? Is it better for the government to stay out and leave it to the marketplace?
Basically the government should rely on the standard criminal and civil law--banning conspiracy, libel, fraud, criminal solicitation, obscenity, child pornography, and so forth, while also protecting rights of property and contract. Government might subsidize sites that serve educational and civic functions, just as it subsidizes educational and civic functions in the physical world. But no "must-discuss-certain-topics" mandates, please.
On the other hand, it's not possible for government both "to stay out" and "to leave it to the marketplace"! You can't have a marketplace without government, guaranteeing property rights. The Internet can't work well without government protecting against viruses, virtual trespasses, and such.
- How has your policy recommendations changed?
The emphasis is 100 percent on what private institutions should do--on what each of us should do, and what those who provdie content should do. Republic.com explored, tentatively to be sure, some forms of government regulation in the form of compulsory links and such. I now think that this was a bad and probably unconstitutional idea! Thanks to some of the book's critics for helping me to correct this. We shouldn't limit the idea of "policy recommendations" to regulators. On the Internet, all of us are, in a sense, policymakers.
- Which presidential candidates are using the web to campaign effectively?
Barack Obama, I think. He was a long-time colleague of mine at Chicago, and I know he's up on many things, certainly including the Internet. He also has a young, enthusiastic group of supporters, and they tend to be savvy about the web. To his credit, he's acutely aware of the risks of polarization, and he listens to all sides, and he's the opposite of an echo chamber type. This isn't an endorsement, I hasten to add, or a prediction about the next president--but the Obama campaign seems quite on top of possible uses of the Internet.
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File created: 8/30/2007