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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Quick Review of Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia on Blogs

I’ve been meaning – for some time now - to say a few words about Cass Sunstein’s new book, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (2006).  The book is worthwhile, covering much of the same ground as his article in the New York University Law Review (but more accessible; less footnotes). 

Of particular interest to readers here would be Sunstein’s mixed review of blogs and blogging.  On the one hand, Sunstein admits that blogs result in a wide variety of views that allow authors more freedom to promulgate their ideas, and for readers to have a wide selection of information available to them.  At the same time, Sunstein argues, the sheer numbers of blogs and blog posts can result in a reader having a literal information overload, not being able to distinguish between sense and nonsense.  Further, and this is something of a theme in Infotopia, he argues that liberals will only read liberal blogs, and conservatives will only conservative blogs, thus distorting preference-shaping and actually leading to a more ideologically biased and misinformed view of the world.

While I agree about the information overload point, I think to some degree the politicization problem is less pronounced for law blogs, because blawgs often cross-link, regardless of political orientation.  There is also often a healthy commentary that springs up on blogs that could provide a moderating influence.  Further, it is possible to discern between sense and nonsense by reading a large number of blogs and figuring out which blogs (and bloggers) you trust (and for what reasons).  Anyway, Sunstein is thought-provoking (as usual), so check it out.         

Posted by Miriam Cherry on October 3, 2006 at 09:31 PM in Books | Permalink


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I found Sunstein's comments on deliberation to be most interesting, leading to ideological
polarization, but in relationship to blogging I need only refer you to "blogs" that are established
within organizations where identity of participants is available. Where information aggergation is
thearted by group-think. People self-censor because they know that they could be punished if they
gave information that contradicted stated strategy or goals, even though that information might
be timely and even vital to execution. On the Internet, the free speech is possible because the
writer can't be punished as easily as can an employee. Look at the blog at Sun Microsystems at
sun.com if you want to see how this is happening, and ask yourself what would happen if all the
posts there were anonymous. If management wanted to use a blog to encourage information flow
around group-think, anonymous posting would be implemented. They clearly don't want this.

Posted by: Bruce Salem | Oct 16, 2006 3:15:29 PM

As the commenter above says, this fear that we will all read only custom-tailored information -- "The Daily Me" -- is a longstanding Sunstein point. Yochai Benkler, in *his* new book on similar subject matter, argues strongly against it by showing the amount of hyperlinking between blogs of different perspectives. Even if such linking is sometimes for the sole purpose of bashing the other side, the practice still puts the counter-argument in front of the reader.

This may be an area where what matters is whether one sees the glass as half empty or half full. (How much cross-linking is enough?) At a minimum, though, I think Sunstein's fear (at least when he has made it before -- I haven't read the new book), while understandable, is somewhat overstated.

Posted by: William McGeveran | Oct 4, 2006 1:50:45 PM

Of course the idea that 'liberals will read only liberal blogs and conservatives...' goes back to Sunstein's fondness for the 'law of group polarization' and was an idea given some mileage in his earlier book, Republic.com (2002). I suppose that's a roundabout way of saying that I hope Infotopia is truly 'new.'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 3, 2006 10:24:42 PM

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