My final thoughts on Cass Sunstein’s #republic. I talk about what it means to reimagine today’s republic, and how Sunstein’s book encourages us to rethink the relationship between technology and democracy.
In the chapter of the book called Proposals, Sunstein outlines a host of different ways that government and media can better act in the interests of democracy.
One of the main ideas I learned is that “regulation” can involve many different kinds of actions. When I think of regulation, I usually think of laws that mandate how some part of a business must function. But regulation can also include mandatory disclosure (like OSHA requirements), subsidizing different kinds of content, or encouraging media outlets to engage in voluntary self-regulation.
Sunstein encourages readers to consider a variety of proposals, not because he supports them or suggests they be enacted, but because they help us to broaden our ideas of what’s possible. An example:
Providers of material with a certain point of view might also provide links to sites with a dramatically different point of view.
To be sure, most people would have no interest in these; but it’d at least make them accessible. Sunstein does not suggest that the government mandate this (it’d be a clear First Amendment violation), but rather he encourages us to ask “how can we make different kinds of content more accessible?”
As I said in my first blog post about this book: this is a book about how to reimagine democracy in the digital era. The internet has created far more consumer choice than was ever available before. This is far from a bad thing, but it is not unambiguously good, either.
The more fundamental problem is that a system of free expression should not be seen solely in terms of consumers and consumption at all. In a free republic, such a system is designed to maintain the conditions for democratic self-government—to serve citizens, not only consumers.
Societies with general-interest intermediaries and public forums expose people to information that they would not have seen in advance. This promotes shared experiences and the breaking down of barriers between people.
The most essential factor in maintaining a republic is a “well-functioning system of free expression,” Sunstein writes. But there’s more needed: a public forum, where speakers have access to a diverse audience; a culture of listening to one another; and avenues for having these discussions.
Current technologies are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more promise than risk.
To the extent that people are using social media to create echo chambers, and wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they are creating serious dangers.
This was an excellent book. I found it a little bit hard to read at times, mostly due to the length of the chapters and the author’s habit of verbosity. But the ideas were well-argued, and the central point was clear.
Above all, I liked how much this book strove to take a moderate approach. Countless words have been written about how the internet is ruining democracy, but this isn’t close to true. It’s not the case that the internet has been totally harmless, though, either.
Sunstein’s book is explicitly in the middle. “Current technologies are hardly an enemy,” he writes, but their dangers should be kept in mind.
I appreciated how often he presented seemingly radical ideas—ones that he doesn’t even support himself—with the goal of making me think about their implications. Reimagining democratic spaces is hard, after all, and such exercises cultivate the imagination.