Try to warn about coming dangers in the Internet age, or try to praise the democratic promise of the Net, and you quickly find yourself speaking instant clichés, undone by somebody else’s clichés, or sunk by yesterday’s headlines.
Wisdom tells a writer to wait it out, until activity cools into pattern. On grounds like these, I have often put down my pen since 1994, when the Web first crept into view. Something big was out there—who could doubt it? Knowing what to applaud or criticize was the problem.
Cass Sunstein takes up his pen at a moment of truth for the Net as a public space. His essay distills that moment, telling us where we are in democratic time. And he does it with calm intention: to defend the principle of public space on the Net, and tell law and social policy to get going, or the moment may be lost.
Of all things praiseworthy in his essay, the tone needs mention. I would call it anti-hype, neither agog nor aghast, in contact with developments but not encased in the news. Sunstein’s method (the phrase is Todd Gitlin’s) is to “de-excite” and thereby retrieve civic hope from doomed hype.
The opposite of hype is never truth or “facts,” for hype has truth swirling around in it, and facts it generates with ease. Hype is countered by a cooler language game. Consider, for example, Sunstein’s skill with midlevel principles. These lie in between grand claims about the Internet (“a great boon for democracy”) and the forest of detail where we easily get lost (will Salon.com go bankrupt? Is UNIX taking over?). His midlevel ideas negotiate between the two, enabling thoughtful and informed debate, and seeking a democratic outcome.
Two levels that Sunstein isolates are the importance of “unanticipated encounters” in a democratic culture and “common experiences” as a public good. What counts are things like people’s “exposure to material they did not specifically choose” and the “range of chance encounters” they have when connected. If lawmakers, regulators, public interest groups, cyberwatchers, or even enlightened executives care, they’ll think with these principles and occasionally act on them.
Sunstein’s essay does a further thing of value. It allows us to spend quality time in the political economy of public attention. That is what he diagnoses so well in his examples of personalized filtering. It’s not only that people can now choose the Daily Me and abandon the Daily We. It’s also: Who in our society truly cares about preserving the We (a public sphere in a wired world), and who is willing to go on dismantling or devaluing or defunding it?
Peruvians learned an interesting fact about their government during the wild scandals involving the corrupt intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who had almost everyone with influence on his payroll. For the big national broadcasters that he intimidated, bribed, and then videotaped, Montesinos had some advice: keep politics off the air as much as possible, or else. Not just the opposition and its demands (that went without saying), but politics itself was suppressed, in favor of game shows, soap operas, and sports.
Here we see at an earlier and cruder sociological stage the political significance of commercial choice. Like any tyrant, Montesinos wanted to control everything, though he couldn’t. His method was to ensure that no broad public ever developed for national politics—no taste, as it were, for politics among ordinary Peruvians. The state might then use the verdict of popular choice (“people prefer to be entertained”) against forces in Peru that would try to televise the drama of self-government, including any contest of ideas.
Montesinos didn’t want a public sphere breaking out while he was concentrating his power—not surprising. What’s surprising is his keen grasp of the situation. If the state prevented the public sphere from competing in the broader attention marketplace, it could allow a relatively “open” contest of ideas among educated elites, those who do read the newspapers.
Ah, but knowing voices say, the problem for us is different. Here, the public sphere is not suppressed: it competes and loses! If it’s a choice between Jim Lehrer and Larry King, Americans are going to choose the entertainer, King—but not because the government forced anyone’s hand. That’s democracy, or at least market democracy, or just realism.
Two things about this realist outlook. First, a factual matter: Jim Lehrer and PBS kill Larry King and CNN in the ratings. Three to one, four to one is common. Second, when the public sphere competes in the attention marketplace, the places where it can “win” go well beyond the marketplace. We cannot just look at ratings battles or whether the New Republic or Redbook magazine sells more copies.
The public sphere, a place where strangers find their footing as citizens, wins when elites care about it. It wins when professionals elect to serve it. It wins when judges and lawmakers respect it. It wins when foundations insist on sustaining it. It wins when journalists write dispatches from it. And it wins when people who don’t care about the public sphere at all have to do things for it—or lose face, feel pressure, court censure, alienate the wrong crowd.
Sunstein is right: consumer sovereignty competes against political sovereignty in an ideological contest. The audience as god to be served competes against the public, which is a different god term. Personal choice and private life compete for time against political choice and public life. Communities of interest compete for space with the larger polity and its interests. Ratings winners compete for legitimacy with winners of respect.
Should we have both? Sunstein says we should. But we have to protect both, by allowing the public sphere to compete, not only “in” the marketplace, but also with the marketplace when it comes to setting priorities.
Sunstein locates us in Internet Time, and calls it a democratic moment. Ours to lose, in other words.