July 15, 2006

Cass Sunstein Moments

I call them Cass Sunstein moments in honor of his widely (and perhaps deservedly) ignored book Republic.com. Perhaps they are better called Steven Johnson moments, for it might just be that Johnson's mild obsession with rebutting Sunstein's argument that keeps it from sliding into utter obscurity. Whatever it's called though I had one this morning as I surfed the web for a hit of news and information.

It was a pretty good read, food, fair trade, obscure Google and Yahoo hires, a font article and my favorite, a four month old post on a decade old interface which led me to Amazon and a used book purchase. Good surfing, nice waves. Then came the moment, a hit of discord. "Isn't the middle east on the verge of war?" What the hell was I doing digging through ancient (by internet terms) design texts, when the world was peering off on the edge of hell and threatening to take the stock market with it?


This is exactly what Sunstein is worried about in an internet era. A world of people lost in their own little "Daily Me" of information and completely unaware of bigger issues and free of events that bring people together in the way say the Super Bowl or World Cup do. And for a moment I was there, off in some designer nerd crafted info bubble. Just a moment though, for bubble's like Sunstein's argument are prone to pop.

For one thing I knew something was up in Middle East. The first thing on my morning ritual, before even getting out of bed, is to read Slate's Today's Papers, a handy synopsis of what our old media establishment think is important. I read it every morning cause I want to know what other people are thinking, what other people are talking about. I don't think I'm alone either, people are social animals, as much as they may love their niche interests they also want to stay in touch with each other. As deep and detailed as your personal interests get, most people are well aware that it's healthy to know what's going on around you. Funnily enough it seems most people don't even need a New York Times editor to remind them that a bit of perspective is helpful from time to time. I may have had a Cass Sunstein moment this morning. But it was just a moment, not some sort of permanent state, and it is that distinction that makes it so difficult to effectively take on his argument.

Sunstein is right only in the broadest of senses, he has identified (and he's far from the only one to do so) a key issue in our rapidly expanding media world. That in a world of intensely diversifying niches it's possible to lose perspective on the broader connections and issues in the world. You can't dismiss the issue, it's very real, but the details are so unformed so far that you can't even call it anything more than an issue. Whether it is even worth calling a "problem" is very much up for grabs. Sure there is enough news focused solely on your favorite sports team or obscure literary genre that you can ignore the drone planes smashing into warships off the coast of Lebanon. And it happens for sure. But those happenings are only moments, maybe you are off in your "daily me" for an hour, maybe months, heck there probably people who will spend their whole lives in it. But will you? Probably not, quite simply because you probably don't want too (although if news stays as bad as it has the past couple days that may change.)

The world is changing, the media is changing, and with it comes a deep potential to get lost in the swarm. But will we? Humans have a remarkable ability to create problems for themselves for sure, but they also have a remarkable ability to solve them, to adapt and to evolve. I've given up trying to predict the future, I'll settle for just avoiding Cass Sunstein moments.

Posted by Abe at July 15, 2006 04:00 PM

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