The Internet as a Giant Echo Chamber for Individuals

I’ve long held that media in and of themselves are morally neutral: they can be used for good or for bad. They can, of course, influence the message as Marshall McLuhan noted1, but the actual machinery of the channels of communication aren’t right or wrong in and of themselves—it’s the content that matters.

The internet as a machine of information exchange promises infinite openness and sharing of ideas, but the actual experience people are having might not be living up to that promise.

Here are a few quotes from a really great article called “The Daily We.”2

I will share more thoughts on this subject and the erosion of public discourse soon.

Is the Internet a wonderful development for democracy? In many ways it certainly is. As a result of the Internet, people can learn far more than they could before, and they can learn it much faster. If you are interested in issues that bear on public policy—environmental quality, wages over time, motor vehicle safety—you can find what you need to know in a matter of seconds. If you are suspicious of the mass media, and want to discuss issues with like-minded people, you can do that, transcending the limitations of geography in ways that could barely be imagined even a decade ago. And if you want to get information to a wide range of people, you can do that via email and websites; this is another sense in which the Internet is a great boon for democracy.

But in the midst of the celebration, I want to raise a note of caution. I do so by emphasizing one of the most striking powers provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what they see. As a result of the Internet and other technological developments, many people are increasingly engaged in a process of “personalization” that limits their exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing. They filter in, and they also filter out, with unprecedented powers of precision.

Of course, these developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better: we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise. But from the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

1. Read more about Marshall McLuhan on Wikipedia.2. Read the full article by Cass Sunstein on The Boston Review website.

Published by


Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

Leave a Reply