Disease and Cure?

Sunstein uses Franklin’s remark to make two related points. First, citizens bear the burden of maintaining the American republic as a healthy, vibrant place; being a citizen is decidedly different from being a consumer. The former has duties, the latter wants (pp. 113-23). Second, and this is the gist of the slender book, the republic is jeopardized by the possibilities of the Internet. Sunstein assumes the correctness of MIT technology specialist Nicholas Negroponte’s conclusion that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to create a “Daily Me” on the Internet that will provide the personalized information (including news) that each person chooses for him or herself. While some Internet enthusiasts have seen the “Daily Me” as a utopian vision, Sunstein sees instead a version of Huxley’s Brave New World. He fears that users will isolate themselves from society at large by using the “Daily Me” as an “echo chamber[]” (p. 65) to preexisting views and wants, perfectly calibrated to filter out the new and different. Sunstein’s healthy democracy has two requirements of its citizenry. First, they must have an appropriate amount of culturally shared experiences. Second, they must engage in a number of unanticipated encounters with unexpected and different people. The shared experiences help provide the culture’s social glue. They allow citizens who do not know each other and would not otherwise be aware of alternatives to their own positions to become acquainted with differing views while nevertheless holding something in common to discuss. The great general-interest intermediaries – television networks, newspapers, Time, and Newsweek – provide this common information to all Americans without regard to geography or ideology. These generalinterest intermediaries maintain sufficient commonality that the issues and problems they discuss will thus be readily available to all. This sets them apart from other common cultural institutions like the entertainment or advertising industries, which rarely focus on the public issues of the day.