In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT technology specialist, celebrated the emergence of “the Daily Me” – a digital news service tailored to each reader’s specific interests. With the Daily Me, he suggested, you would no longer rely on newspapers and magazines to curate what you saw, and you could bypass the television networks. Instead, you could design a communications package just for you, with topics and perspectives chosen in advance.
If anything, Negroponte understated what was on the horizon. It’s now easy to create your own information cocoon, simply by selecting online stories and sources that interest and please you. Even if you don’t, an algorithm might do it for you.
But let’s hold the celebration. The Daily Me is an enemy of democracy. Representative government depends on shared experiences, common knowledge and a host of unanticipated, unchosen encounters. All too often, information cocoons become echo chambers, which make mutual understanding impossible and which promote dogmatism, polarisation and the fragmentation of society.
The simplest explanation for the dangers comes from an old finding in social science, which goes by the name of “group polarisation”. When like-minded people get together, and speak and listen only to one another, they usually end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.
If group members begin with a certain point of view on, say, immigration, climate change or international trade, their internal discussions will make them more extreme. The rise of the Daily Me helps to explain apparently intractable political divisions in the UK, the US, France and elsewhere. It also helps account for some of the most intense forms of political enmity, not excluding terrorism.
What can be done? A clue comes from an obscure US constitutional doctrine, where the supreme court has ruled that public streets and parks must be kept open to the public for “expressive activity”.
In the most prominent case, from 1939, the court stated: “Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and time out of mind, have been used for the purposes of assembly, communicating thought between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens.”
This public forum doctrine, as it is called, is meant to serve three purposes. It increases the likelihood that citizens will encounter diverse points of view – including serious complaints and concerns – even if they did not choose that encounter. Some of those encounters will affect people, perhaps in enduring ways.
It also ensures that speakers can have access to a wide array of people who walk the streets and use the parks. If they stop and listen, they may well hear people’s arguments about such issues as inequality, education, taxes, pollution and crime; they will also learn about the nature and intensity of views held by their fellow citizens.
Increasingly, technology enables people to create their own communications universes
In addition, the public forum creates an opportunity for shared exposure to diverse speakers with diverse views and complaints. In a city or town, many people will be simultaneously exposed to the same views and complaints: they will see them together at the same time. Anyone who has been to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London – an area where public speeches and debates have been encouraged since the mid-1800s, when protests and demonstrations took place in the park – will understand the important role of public forums in a functioning democracy.
We should not, of course, idealise public forums. In the second half of the 20th century, the media – television stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines – carried out all three functions. At their best, they broadened people’s horizons by exposing them to novel topics (a scientific discovery in Berlin, a health crisis in Nigeria) and perspectives (left or right) that could change their views, their days, even their lives.
To be sure, the media could also promote polarisation, especially when they had identifiable political profiles. But even if they did, they often aspired to take readers and viewers out of their comfort zone by trusting them to display two characteristics intensely prized by democracies: humility and curiosity.
Public streets and parks continue to matter, and the same is true for the traditional media. But increasingly, technology enables people to create their own communications universes, limited to topics and perspectives they find congenial. That may seem like freedom, but it’s a prison.
However, technology is producing escape routes. An iPhone app, Read Across the Aisle, allows people to see, in real time, whether their reading habits are skewing left or right. PolitEcho shows you the political biases of your friends and news feed on Facebook.
Traditional media can also combat polarisation. The New York Times has a new feature, Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss, with the aim of exposing people to political ideas from other publications. In a way, this promotes serendipity. It increases the likelihood that people will stumble upon something that challenges their convictions – and will be able to understand, and learn from, people they might otherwise demonise.
For providers and consumers of information, and those working at the intersection of democracy and technology, we need far more creative thinking in this vein. The stakes are not low. Ultimately, democracy depends on it.