Does the Internet really expand our horizons?
Scanning the magazine rack at a public library recently for the latest copy of Minnesota Monthly, a regional-interest magazine, I spied a copy of the National Review out of the corner of my eye. On the cover of the right-wing publication loomed a huge, half-wrapped granola bar, along with the piquant headline ?Granola Conservatives: A report from the ?Crunchy Right.??
Intrigued, I grabbed the magazine and read an article detailing the small but growing number of conservatives whose views, including a fondness for locally grown produce and environmental conservation and an antipathy toward suburban sprawl, are almost indistinguishable from those of many liberals.
Pleased by the discovery, I sat back and marveled at what was truly a moment of serendipity. I had shifted my field of inquiry from local bed-and-breakfasts to conservative politics in less than a second, simply through happenstance.
Unfortunately, warns University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, this kind of chance encounter probably wouldn?t have happened in cyberspace. In his book republic.com (Princeton University Press), Sunstein warns against the unintended side effects of personalization software, an emerging technology that allows consumers to filter what they see, read, and listen to according to their own select tastes.
Already, newspaper Web sites operated by the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Christian Science Monitor encourage readers to ?decide what?s news,? as do cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC. And, sites like Sonicnet.com let you create ?Me Music,? your very own musical universe consisting only of songs you want to hear. Never want to hear R & B? No problem. International politics makes you snooze? You can sweep it under the rug forever. You only want to read sports, sports, and more sports? Done.
With just a few mouse clicks you can create ?a communications package that is personally designed, with each component fully chosen in advance,? says MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, what he calls ?the Daily Me.? Some people celebrate this capacity to weed out entire categories of news, music, or culture; it?s merely an efficient tool, they say, to save precious minutes lost each day in paging through the newspaper or tuning the radio dial.
For others, inhabiting a world entirely of your own making sounds like an isolating experience, bereft of illuminating random encounters and contrary opinions. Hearing only your own voice, or worse, ?louder echoes of your own voice,? as Sunstein puts it, could become somewhat suffocating. He praises the Internet as a tool that ?greatly increases people?s ability to expand their horizons,? but he cautions that ?many people are using it to produce narrowness, not breadth.?
Of course, filtering occurs in real life as well. When you read the newspaper, take a scenic drive, or decide what to have for dinner, you are guided by your tastes. However, outside of cyberspace, you might read an article about Egypt on your way to the sports section. Turn the dial toward your favorite radio station and you might stumble upon an old blues song you discover you love but would never have selected as part of your ?Daily Me.? Or, like me, you might walk into a library intending to research vacation accomodations but walk out knowing more about an interesting and hopeful development within the conservative movement. With the advent of personalization software, how will you ever catch something out of the corner of your eye in cyberspace?
Sunstein believes the very fabric of our democracy, which is dependent upon multiple voices and a range of common ground, could be at stake. Creating a ?Daily Me? and engaging in cyber-discussion only with like-minded people, he says, might breed an excessive clubbiness, ignorance of and perhaps contempt for opposing opinions, and, in some cases, even violence. After all, a group like Al Qaeda is as much an outgrowth of the Web?s ability to bring niche interests together as are people who log on to talk about their mutual love of Virginia Woolf, snowboarding, or the Kansas City Royals. Sunstein is not advocating curbing Web discussions, but he suggests we seek ways to address the group polarization that occurs when like-minded people are talking only to each other.
In other words, instead of sitting in front of a computer screen all day, why not go out and experience the beauty of the unexpected, of randomness, and of diversity that you find on the street, in a park?even at the local grocery store? ?No man and no mind was ever emancipated,? as the philosopher John Dewey once said, ?merely by being left alone.?
Anjula Razdan is assistant editor of Utne.