On Constitution Day, Cass Sunstein deliberates on deliberation

Is the proliferation of online customized news sources a boon or a hindrance to democracy?

That was the question posed by Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein in his Constitution Day lecture, entitled “Free Speech in the Age of the Internet.” Watch the webcast.

According to Sunstein, the emerging media paradigm is embodied by an “architecture of control,” in which citizens merely choose from various “free speech packages” that suit their own interests and speak to their own pre-conceived notions. This filtering, said Sunstein, may lead to unintended consequences, potentially even to the detriment of the concept of self-government.

The shift away from traditional mass-media sources of information—newspapers, general-interest magazines, network television—toward more targeted online outlets, such as news aggregators, blogs, homogenous television programming and other forms of “collaborative filtering,” could lead, according to Sunstein, to a decline in contact with the diversity of perspectives which are characteristic of the public arena. This loss of communication, in turn, could lead to increasing fragmentation of society into like-minded communities, and even more startling, to an increasing polarization of those communities.

Drawing from years of research, Sunstein identified a number of trends regarding deliberation among members of like-minded groups. Citing his own 2005 Colorado study, he observed that the act of deliberation itself, when conducted within these bubbles of similar opinion, had the effect of pushing groups to the extremes of their previously-held positions. Similarly, citing his studies of the decisions of federal judges over a period of many years, Sunstein pointed out that on panels on which all three judges were of the same political affiliation, voting patterns were consistently pushed to the extremes of typical voting behavior, significantly skewing results either to the far right or the far left, depending on party affiliation.

According to Sunstein, the founding fathers of the United States envisioned a republic rich in public spaces in which people might encounter other people with ideas that might not be otherwise self-selected, but with whom they might remain on good terms. The “random and unpurposeful” nature of these interactions is, to Sunstein, the foundation of healthy civic life. With such interactions, individuals, groups and companies can no longer act in a vacuum, and their deliberations and actions tend toward productive moderation. Sunstein quoted John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing people in contact with others dissimilar to themselves, and in contact too with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”

What Sunstein calls “the architecture of serendipity” is currently to be found in many places. Streets and parks often produce unchosen, unanticipated encounters. Printed newspapers and general interest magazines offer the opportunity to brush, by accident, over headlines or photos or events that might not be self-selected, but that nevertheless hold the potential to change readers’ perceptions or even their lives.

As the role of printed information sources diminishes in the face of personalized electronic competition, Sunstein identifies the increasing value of publicly-unifying entities, such as those physical parks, national holidays and forums which allow diverse peoples to congregate together. Above all, he emphasizes the need for new institutions designed to promote “the architecture of serendipity.”

— Anthony Lux