The Splinternet, Cyberbalkanization, and Democracy

A post by Mike Kole reminded me of the thoughts of Cass Sunstein in his 2001 book,

I haven’t read it, but reports say that Sunstein’s central thesis is that the Internet will weaken democracy “because it allows different groups to avoid exposure to one another as they gather in increasingly segregated communities, making recognition of other points of view or common ground decreasingly likely.” (From the Splinternet/Cyberbalkanization entry of Wikipedia).

This isn’t new, of course, and it’s not unique to the Internet. As I mentioned recently elsewhere, I know some older political types who recall being shocked by the Nixon landslide because “everyone they knew voted for McGovern.” And, before rapid global communications, information was pretty effectively segregated by geography. But, I suppose the Internet and the customization available allows folks to wrap the cocoon even tighter than before.


  1. says

    And then we end up finding compelling reasons for coming back together, if the past is any indication. It’s one of those cyclical things. The media changes, but ways in which we communicate adapt to the new after some time goes by.

  2. Carlito Brigante says

    I have heard these arguments before, we are sort of self-segragating into the “factions” that Madison feared.

    If we look back to some of the claims of political geographers, these researchers noted that different groups could exist in positions of relative stability when in proximity of each other. The UK and Ireland are examples of these tight nations. And as islands, the rarely confronted other population groups, at least prior to colonization.

    Large nations with various ethnic groups struggle to assimilate with other groups. Russia was particularly problematic with large expanses, north-south mountain ranges and rivers, with few uniting routes of commerce.

    Countries that are long in degrees of longitude also share dissimilarities. The northern longitudes are often industrial, the southern regions agricultural.
    This was the model in Vietnam and Korea. In fact, prior to the Korean war, the north was industrialized and the south agricultural. But the north adopted the two worst policial systems on earth, absolute monarchy and communism.

    The same conditions exsisted in the US in the 1860s. And the result was perhaps geographically predictable.

    • steelydanfan says

      But the north adopted the two worst policial systems on earth, absolute monarchy and communism.

      Two problems with this:

      “Communism” is not a political system.
      North Korea is not a communist society

  3. says

    Self-selected filters are a problem, but I don’t know that there’s much to do about them. Technology can both help and hinder that kind of cocooning, and the kind of people who like to put a protective bubble around their ideology will always find a way to do it.

    I’m much more concerned about the more insidious filters that are selected for us by Facebook and Google, among others. It bothers me that, due to Facebook’s algorithm, I’m less likely to see it when one of my conservative high school classmates posts something. And that when I search for something on Google, the results I see are based on what Google thinks I want to see — which is probably very different than your results, Doug, or Mike Kole’s, or my wife’s, or anyone else’s. These bubbles are much harder to be aware of, and thus are harder to burst.

    I’m gonna sound like a broken record here, but I highly recommend Eli Pariser’s book, _The Filter Bubble_. You can watch his TED talk to get the gist of it:

  4. says

    Aww, who fed you that chestnut about McGovern, m’boy? That campaign was sunk by the Eagleton affair twenty minutes after it started. [It’s true that I (aged 18), for one, didn’t know anyone in my social circle who voted for Nixon, but, then, none of ’em was so deluded as to believe McGovern would win.]

    Seriously, it’s interesting how, forty years later, there’s still an interest in portraying McGovern as a leftist firebrand and his supporters as one big cloud of patchouli. Useful, too, for a Democratic party which has been in full retreat from his, and its, ideals ever since, the better to win elections it can’t manage to do anything with when it does so.

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