BLOG 10: Democracy in the “Daily Me”
“The Daily Me” as described by Cass R. Sunstein is a phenomena by which we, today’s consumers, so narrowly customize our media, politics, and news consumption that we sow the seeds of our own destruction.
Perhaps Sunstein was not so overly dramatic about it, but his view of new media technology and its effect on the media, communication, and information environment is certainly a pessimistic one. “The Daily Me”, according to Sunstein, causes a plethora of problems including, but not limited to, a narrowing of the information environment and its diversity, decreased common ground and shared interest to act as the “social glue” in democratic societies, and providing a personalized forum for terrorists and other anti-Democratic groups looking to spread their word.
Republic.com 2.0 was certainly an interesting read, especially for a member of a generation that has virtually grown up in this “Daily Me”, personalized information environment. In the first few chapters of his book, Sunstein goes into detail about the importance of general-interest intermediary (GII) sources, such as public forums or newspapers–sources that require the consumer to consume more than just a particular brand of information. According to Sunstein, general-interest intermediary sources such as newspapers are important because the consumer cannot simply choose what he or she wants to read. In the course of reading a newspaper, the consumer is forced to at least acknowledge various news stories that she might not have otherwise chosen to read about. Sunstein’s point in these chapters is that this exposure to a diversity of information is particularly important to democracy because it spreads knowledge, creates open mindsets, and allows citizens to connect to others despite differences.
Sunstein has a point. I enjoyed reading about GII, not only because I had never thought about the newspaper’s role in that manner, but because he certainly has a point about the importance of exposure to diverse information. Where I fall short with him is the assumption that the internet and new media technologies do not foster similar opportunities. As any Wikipedia article-hopper can tell you, it is quite easy to expose yourself to a variety of different information online, whether or not you originally set out to do so.
The various holes in his arguments aside, there were two main problems I had with Sunstein’s book. The first is a comment on style. Sunstein often seems confused about whether he wants to express himself colloquially or pedantically. As far as style goes, Republic.com 2.0 was mostly understandable, although Sunstein’s tendency to throw in more complicated, academic subjects, written in a pedantic fashion, resulted in a book that wasn’t completely user-friendly.
“If the public is balkanized, and if different groups are designing their own preferred communications packages, the consequences will be not merely the same but still more balkanization, as group members move one another toward more extreme points in line with their initial tendencies”
serves as a stark contrast to sentences such as
“When I opened the email, I learned that the attachment was a love letter.”
While I appreciated Sunstein’s use of informal language and structure in example paragraphs, the jump between styles made the reading feel inconsistent and petulant.
The second problem I had with his book is more content-centric. While Sunstein never claims to want to provide a solution to the problem of the “Daily Me”, he spends over 220 pages outlining a problem that he never gives a satisfying end to. “The Daily Me”, while interesting to read about and certainly relevant, is something a short paper could have sufficed to explain if Sunstein was not going to offer a plausible solution to this apparently earth-shattering problem.
His overly defensive language–he spends much of the time assuring “I have not suggested, and do not believe…” and “Nothing that I have said should be taken as an empirical argument…”–is uncomfortable enough to sift through, but add the constant repetition of themes and pessimism without mentioning counterarguments simply made the book long and his argument less credible, in my not-so-esteemed opinion.
Republic.com 2.0 definitely shed a new perspective–and a refreshing counterexample–to the ever-pervasive opinion that new media technology is good and only good, but I think the book could have been handled better. It could have been shorter, less repetitive, easier-to-read, and offered some kind of end solution so that I was not left, at the end, going “so what?”
I think to students of communications and political science, Republic.com 2.0 is a good book to offer new insight, but I would assign portions of the book, not the entire thing, to read. As for the average reader–I’m not particularly sure how much value they would glean from Sunstein and his analysis. Certainly not a bedtime story, anyway! xoxo!