- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 14, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691095892
- ISBN-13: 978-0691095899
- Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.5 x 7.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #586,833 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Winner of the 2002 New York Book Show Award
Sunstein brings a thoughtful perspective to the unanticipated problems of a world in which an increasing amount of information is transmitted over the Internet. . . . [He] writes in a clear and inviting style that brings wisdom to even the most obvious of points. . . . Republic.Com raises important and troubling questions about the effects of the Internet on a democratic society. Sunstein's assessment is persuasive. . . . Though Sustein hardly has all the answers, he performs an important service in casting a skeptical light on a medium more often seen as a utopian technology than as a potentially corrosive force.---Stephen Labaton, New York Times Book Review
If Type-A cybermedia moguls, desperate to pre-identify and serve consumer choices, spent a sliver of their time pondering Sunstein, we'd all be better off.---Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
An enormously intelligent, accessible, and rewarding book. Log on. (Virginia Quarterly Review)
Complex and thoughtful . . . a slim, sleek volume perfectly designed to appeal to Internet-era attention spans. (Publishers Weekly)
To Sunstein, the First Amendment was not only about banning censorship; it was also about getting people to talk with one another . . . He fears that the Internet is contributing to a fragmentation of public discourse that is undermining democracy. For democracy to work, Sunstein says, it's important that citizens be exposed to many alternative viewpoints, occasionally encountering information that is unexpected or even jarring.---Peter Coy, BusinessWeek
A succinct, eminently sensible little book. . . . [Sunstein's] 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, The Christian Science Moniter
Cass Sunstein sounds a timely warning in this concise, sophisticated account of the rise of the internet culture. He argues that it is our very ability to wrap ourselves in our own tastes, views, and prejudices with the aid of technology that constitutes a real threat to the traditional democratic values.---Peter Aspden, Financial Times
[Sunstein] insists that we need to think more carefully about how to use the Internet as responsible citizens, rather than as mere consumers. . . . Democracy, rather than pure populism, requires that we experience unplanned encounters with opposing views.---Steven Poole, The Guardian
Sunstein persuasively warns that the Internet's capacity to serve up only what users order in advance could debilitate the clash of ideas critical to informed self-government . . . We have always been able to seek out those who share our assumptions and ignore ideas we don't like. But the Internet's ability to filter information instantaneously makes the sifting process so much more effective that we are in danger of transforming ourselves into a society of egocentric techno-tribalists, Sunstein warns.---Paul M. Barrett, The Washington Monthly
From the Back Cover
"Cass Sunstein is one of the nation's preeminent legal minds and constitutional scholars. In Republic.com, he presents insightful and far-reaching perspectives on the Internet and its impact on free speech, the marketplace of ideas, and our democracy itself. He offers a lesson worth heeding by us all. The Internet is an effective means for preserving and promoting these cherished principles. But it also has the potential to undermine them--and we must not let that happen."--Senator Edward M. Kennedy
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Mr. Sunstein begins his book well, assuming a solid distinction between our consumer and citizen-oriented behaviors; the former favoring individual choice and the latter being more civic-minded. This dichotomy falls apart when presented as a false choice: you're either one or the other (I suspect most of the populace blurs the two), and the perilous consequences of unfettered personal choice make clear which the author favors-and which should be regulated. He further cheapens his consumer choice argument by drawing on dubious critics of consumption culture-among them one Robert H. Frank, author of such vitriol as 'Luxury Fever' and 'The Winner-take-All Society,' whose arguments seem to boil down to "consumer goods can't make you happy" and "we want goods because our neighbors have them," forever damning us to a "consumption treadmill." With this decked stacked against the consumer, Sunstein plows forward, arguing the need for government to step in and help the dumbfounded citizenry. They simply can't be left alone against the dreadful free market-characterized as having "potentially destructive effects" and "producing serious problems" when it comes to cultivating democracy.
The strawman of "consumer sovereignty" takes a more-deserved pounding in a chapter on freedom of speech. But again, Sunstein stacks the deck: you either emphasize this sovereignty or you "stress the democratic roots of the free speech principle." No prizes for guessing which side he favors.
This assumption clearly reveals-to me-the author's cynicism. Media regulation-at its grubby little heart-can't help but see the populace (consumers or citizenry, take your pick) as sheep: drones willing to watch or read anything the evil media barons put in front of them. In this view, government takes on a crusader's role, ensuring hours of children's programming or airtime for opposing viewpoints. Under the spell of the duplicious media, of course, the great unwashed would never demand such things.
My most frustrating experience reading republic.com resulted from the lack of cause-and-effect arguments about media choice fragmentation. All the author's arguments explain little about our *reasons* for filtering and fragmenting the torrents of media thrown our way. His attempts in this area are strangely circular: fragmentation is bad for democracy because people are acting as consumers-and when they act like consumers, they tend to fragment their choices. The few evil examples offered-the "cybercascades" of Matt Drudge and his ilk-merely highlight fringe cases; if *this* is all we have to fear from this phenomenon, Sunstein needn't have spent 202 pages on it.
Another assumption involves "regulation," defined as just about anything good government accomplishes. Besides playing the old government-invented-the-Internet card (and surely would have beefed up ARPANET to include Netscape, Microsoft, AOL, and eBay, given sufficient funding), Sunstein clearly thinks those profiting from the net do so due to the graces of big, ugly government. He strangely seems to place government protection of property rights on the same plane as, say, regulating broadcasting; government certainly has a rightful place in the former sphere, but many good arguments have been advanced about its place in the latter. In either event, his assumption that "the Internet is already regulated, get over it" rings hallow since he can't seem to justify any regulatory ideas beyond those currently applied to TV and radio.
But that's the best he can do, and ultimately, this book really runs aground when the author puts forth solutions. Links to opposing websites? (What is "opposing?" What if I'm neither a 'conservative' or a 'liberal?') Economic subsidies for balanced discussions? (Determined by whom?) "Must carry" rules for the Internet? (Since websites literally take seconds to create, the 'scarcity' argument that advanced must-carry rule for TV 30 years ago hardly holds water now.) The only proposal I found somewhat intriguing involved having media sources "disclose what they're doing"-under some government auspices. Not bad, but even the author doesn't 'disclose' what he's up to in this book-you have to *read* it. How a website would differ is left as an exercise.
After all these assumptions and proposals in this book, I started to see any paranoia about excessively filtering as overblown. While not the unarguable good put forth by Bill Gates and Nicholas Negroponte, filtering nevertheless has its place. Trying to balance excessive filtering by brute force is not only untenable, but wrong-headed: most educated people tend to change their minds by heeding good arguments and debate that influence their opinions - not by reading viewpoints diametrically opposed to their own.
I found an amusing irony as I completed this book-namely, that I was personally an exception to the cures proposed by Mr. Sunstein. First, I recognized that reading his book was, perhaps, a form of filtering itself: I was reading material that "preached to my own choir." But alas! I found myself disagreeing with much of what he said, and more: that I didn't need a government solution (or even "voluntarily-imposed regulation") to read this opposing viewpoint! I had-somehow-found it on my own!
Even the author seems dimly aware that the very act of writing and publishing his book might be construed as preaching to a like-minded audience. He softens just about every point he makes by some very balanced back-tracking ("Insofar as new technologies make it easier ... for communication among people with common experiences, ... they are a boon") to the point of being hypersensitive to creating his own fragment. He shouldn't, of course, be so concerned. His educated audience can easily draw their own conclusions.
Yet that is exactly what Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago Law Professor, does in Republic.com. With an improving ability to filter everything we wish to see, read and hear Sunstein asks if this is healthy for a democratic based society. The successful practice of Democracy, he argues, requires an informed citizenry.
In the pre-cyberworld, newspapers, magazines and other media outlets performed this function by exposing readers to a varied diet of opinions and ideas. They created an environment where citizens should share their common values and experiences. As the traditional media's role as purveyor diminishes and the reader's power to filter unwanted messages improves, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving. Shrill and extreme versions of our own thoughts and opinions will be sucked into this vacuum, Sunstein argues.
While I buy author's argument, I reject his conclusions. He argues for increased regulation of The Internet. I respond that more regulation is self-defeating, if the end is a democratic free-society. Filtering is the inevitable response to the growth of information. Readers do not have enough time to assimilate all they are asked. Responsible editors, human in the past, mechanical in the future, will be asked to do what they have always done: prepare and present a balanced view of the reader's world.
The Internet will prove to be effective means for preserving and promoting our cherished Democratic Principles. Citizens, I believe, once aware of filtering potential hazards will take deliberate steps to assure that it does not undermine the institutions and ideas they cherish.