The Daily Me

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.

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