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January 27, 2004
Balkin on Sunstein, Blogging and Democracy
Prof. Jack Balkin has made a couple of good posts about freedom of speech, democracy and blogging (What I learned about blogging in a year and Political Organization and Political Discussion on the Internet). The posts are mostly in response to Cass Sunstein's wildly overblown fears of internet-facilitated cultural isolation in Republic.com and a recent article in the New York Times that has a similar thesis (Politics of the Web: Meet, Greet, Segregate, Meet Again).
Frankly, I've never really understood Sunstein's fears. It seems to me that we have far more to fear from the mass media, whether that mass media was the Catholic Church prior to the 95 Thesis or that mass media epitomized in The Triumph of the Will. I think the major conceptual problem with Sunstein's thesis is that he seems to assume that people are mostly passive consumers of information. This is one of the critical elements of the traditional mass media model. In the past, mass media has generally been dependent on top-down control of the means of production and distribution to fill the minds of passive consumers. Today's internet media doesn't eliminate the traditional model directly, but provides a competing means for bottom-up production and distribution that assumes active participation and production by people who aren't merely passive consumers.
In many ways, actually, the top-down and bottom-up means of production and distribution are complimentary, which is why Sunstein's calls for some sort of top-down control over the bottom-up internet strike me as so odd. Sunstein's thesis makes sense only to the extent that the public cannot be trusted (whether for social, technical, economic or legal reasons) to be both consumer and producer, recipient and distributer. If there are problems, the solution seems to be to give more capability to consumers to produce and distribute, rather than attempt to replicate mass media controls.
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