The State of the Information Society
Hi, Cass! Debating the state of the information society is a tall order, and it's one that makes me feel a bit inadequate. But perhaps we can at least look at a few important aspects.
First, in an increasingly balkanized society -- with all the potential for mischief that the Balkan roots of the phrase suggest -- is Internet-based political discourse making things better, or worse?
The answer to that question, I think, is "both." It's making things better, because the elites who used to control political discourse through the gatekeeping functions employed by newspaper editors, television news producers, and the like have lost a great deal of power, and they've lost it not least through making clear that they're not up to the job. The gatekeepers combined bias and ineptitude in a way that for many is symbolized by the Dan Rather "memogate" fiasco, in which producers and anchors at CBS were fooled by crudely forged documents that Internet users exposed within hours. (You discuss this in Republic.com 2.0 at pages 146-47). History is now repeating itself (if the first time was farce instead of tragedy -- and it was -- then the second time is, I guess, really farcical farce) as Dan Rather sues CBS for $70 million, even though doing so requires him to disavow things he told us on the air when he apologized for that disaster. But those on the left have their own litany of complaints, focusing on Judith Miller's reporting about Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction before the Iraq invasion. Indeed, there seems to be agreement across the blogosphere that members of the professional journalist class aren't living up to their claims about objectivity, competence, and those famed layers of fact-checkers and editors as a guarantee of reliability.
So elites who didn't deserve the trust that they once enjoyed no longer enjoy anything like that trust. That's probably good, as it seems clear that the trust was, often, unearned and undeserved.
On the other hand, you're right to suggest that there are dangers to the splintering of American society, something made worse as commonly shared media outlets get less attention. We hear a lot about the Red/Blue divide, but my recent reading of pollster Mark Penn's new book on the American polity, Microtrends, reminded me of what Fred Rodell is supposed to have said when asked if the Yale Law faculty was polarized: "Of course not -- they're far too divided for that!"
Penn slices and dices Americans into all sorts of interest groups, each comprising a tiny fraction of the electorate, and suggests that one of the concerns in Republic.com and Republic.com 2.0 -- the loss of a shared common civic culture -- may be more serious than I realized. On the other hand, Penn makes another point that seems more cheerful, suggesting that much of the angry division may be limited to elites, who he says are more emotional and less rational in their politics than ordinary people.
Penn finds, for example, that the "elites" are far more likely to form their political opinions based on fashion and gut-feelings than on reasoned assessment of policy differences, while "Joe Sixpack" types turn out to be far more rational and informed in their political thinking. ("Elites look to other elites to reinforce their views, and they convince themselves that the way they see life is how the other 90 percent of America is also experiencing it.") Luckily, as the elites get more disconnected, the ordinary voters are getting better informed and more involved. Penn concludes: "So if you can get over all the din created by the chattering elites and the out-of-touch journalists, you can talk to some pretty smart people out there."
That's certainly been my experience from running a political blog with a published email address. I will confess, however, that since the first edition of Republic.com came out, I find myself living in your nightmare scenario to a degree, and struggling to avoid worse. I do try to read blogs that disagree with me, but the higher level of name-calling -- and in my case it's not so much generic name-calling as name-calling directed at me personally -- makes that more of an effort than it used to be. This probably isn't a widespread problem, though. But the other problem is a harbinger of the "Daily Me" that you discuss: I get a lot of my news via the 1,000+ emails I get every day. This is great in many ways: There's no technological news-aggregation system yet that's as good as having thousands of people scanning the Web and saying "this looks like something Glenn would be interested in" and emailing a link.
The downside is that they get their ideas about what I'm interested in from what I blog about -- and if I let my blogging be driven by the email, recursion sets in and my posting will get deeper, but narrower. I try to counteract that by skipping around to newspapers, magazines, other blogs with different views, and aggregation services like Memeorandum and Techmeme that deliver a different selection of stories. But what I'm experiencing today is probably what most people will experience soon as systems ranging from Amazon recommendations to Tivo to various news-customization interfaces get better. Will casual consumers of news try as hard as I do to get other angles? I doubt it. I doubt that I would, if I weren't blogging.
Of course, a lot of people blog, and maybe that will help. But I do think that the increased divisiveness of the blogosphere today -- which is itself a subset of the increased divisiveness and acrimony in the political sphere generally -- makes it harder to get all sides of an issue. The acrimony just makes things unpleasant.
It's also the case that some political operatives -- such as Mark Penn himself, and his predecessor Karl Rove -- see slicing and dicing the public
into numerous demographics that can be frightened and/or catered to as
the key to political success. That approach may be effective
(especially if there are no real social sanctions against it) but it
probably does more to break down the social glue than blogospheric
division ever will.
And this may be where I tie in Infotopia and An Army of Davids. Both of those books, in different ways, talk about the potential of letting individuals self-organize to tackle all sorts of problems. Does the decline in civility that we see on the Internet, coupled with the tendency of politics these days to break people down into interest groups at the expense of larger concerns about citizenship, make that sort of self-organization harder? Or does the intensity of feeling that it produces energize people? Your thoughts?