by Cass Sunstein

I almost wish I’d read the summing up chapter of rather than the whole thing. On the other hand, the benefit to be derived from exposing oneself to alternate viewpoints is what the book is about, and I wouldn’t have wanted to read it if I hadn’t been interested in the topic.

The idea is that technology increasingly allows us to filter the news we hear; thus we are in danger of losing touch with (or, worse, becoming polarized from) our fellow citizens and the very government we ought to be creating in conjunction with them. The book is a call for increased awareness of the potential problem but also for individual and private action to combat the tendency towards excessive filtering… and also for top-down policy change (regulation) coming from the government itself, if necessary.

See below for more on what I thought.

General Thoughts on

Certainly I think that minority viewpoints should be protected; IIRC, John Stuart Mill says the possibility of differing ideas is independent of the value of any particular differing idea. Everyone benefits from the fact that outsider opinions are tolerated.

I also think that individuals should, ideally, seek out, examine and engage with ideas different from their own, though to my way of thinking this is a rather high standard of human behavior.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Uneducated minds perhaps just stay away from whatever they disagree with. That’s what Sunstein worries citizens will do, en masse.

What disappointed me about the book was that it was about policies for improving society. Having read Nudge, another policy-oriented book of Sunstein’s, perhaps I should have known better than to hope the book would be an examination of cognitive behavior related to internet use.

Parts of the book read like The Cult of the Amateur, a book that seems to exist mainly to warn us that Something Bad is happening in the realm of media and communications. But Sunstein also spends a surprising amount of time engaged in what sometimes appears to be backpedaling. I’m of course not against free speech, he says; I of course wouldn’t want to force people to engage with ideas they oppose; I would of course prefer private solutions wherever possible; the internet per se is of course not a bad thing, in fact I think it’s great; I’m not particularly nostalgic—the newspapers and television stations of yore were of course not perfect; I wouldn’t dare to predict what the future will bring in terms of technology and its uses; I’m not even all that pessimistic, really. Still and all, things are changing, and that’s a problem that deserves our attention, he insists.

What Stood Out

Here are some quotations from the book that made me think.

[T]he public forum doctrine makes it more likely that people will have a sense, however brief, not simply of the experiences but also of the arguments being made by people with a particular point of view…. sometimes… a picture or a brief encounter has the effect of thousands of words (33).

Not being a particularly politically involved person, I never understood the point of marching around holding up a sign bearing only a handful of words. How could a slogan change someone’s mind, especially on a polarizing topic? It can’t. The point of the sign is not to convince, but to signpost the existence of detailed arguments belonging to the associated viewpoint. Seems obvious in retrospect.

Brutus, an eloquent antifederalist critic of the Constitution, insisted, “In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.” (40)

Sunstein points out that Hamilton approved of the party system and the inevitable clashes that would occur, and that’s what we have today. I sometimes worry, though, that there’s not enough melting happening in the melting pot. What becomes of a country in which “manners, sentiments, and interests” are not similar enough? Sunstein’s fear of polarization seems somewhat justified.

Consider a passage from [Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes’ greatest free speech opinion: […] “[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” (47).

Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine more or less argues that we don’t choose our ideas, they choose us. They’re like infectious mind parasites. Some of the bits of information we receive and transmit are true and some are not; it’s not necessarily the case that the true ones are more likely to be transmitted! I suppose we all optimistically assume that even if false rumors spread like wildfire, they’ll eventually be disproved and largely if not completely rejected in the competition of the market of ideas. For example, some people hold tight to outlandish conspiracy theories, but not very many do.

Consider the celebratory words [of] David Bohnett, founder of “The Internet gives you the opportunity to meet other people who are interested in the same things you are, no matter how specialized, no matter how weird, no matter how big or how small.” (54)

In other words, some people juggle geese. And they’ve no doubt set up a club online to celebrate their hobby. This is what I love about the internet. What I do NOT love about the internet is the sense I sometimes get that whenever I go looking for people who also do what I do, they do it better. I might be the best at origami among 95% of the people I’ve ever met, but among actual experts, I’m just a dilettante because I’m also interested in things that are not origami. (Luckily, there’s a tribe for people who aren’t interested in just one thing. We’re scanners. Or whatever. We can’t even choose just one term.)

[P]eople want to be perceived favorably by other group members, and also to perceive themselves favorably. Once they hear what others believe, they often adjust their positions in the direction of the dominant position…. [The result is a] “spiral of silence,” in which people with minority positions silence themselves (68).

I have felt this happening. In some cases it’s worth trying to derail the process by speaking up as a member of the minority, and in some cases it is possible to suggest opposing opinions devil’s-advocate style. But in others, all conclusions are long foregone and agreement so automatically assumed that seemingly the only possible thing to do is grin and bear it. Or escape the group entirely.

[A] perception of shared group identity will heighten the effect of others’ views, whereas a perception of unshared identity, and of relevant differences, will reduce that effect, and possibly even eliminate it (70).

Years ago I read a comedy book on parenting (called Raising the Perfect Child Through Guilt and Manipulation) in which the author suggested that a great way of building family solidarity was to create an “us vs. them” dynamic through support of specific pro sports teams… and condemnation of their opponents. Group identity and shared ideas can be powerful tools for achieving project goals in the workplace as well as family solidarity, but there is always the danger that group identity will squash individual thinking, or that the forging of the group identity will fail and alienate one or more members of the group.

If you lack a great deal of private information, you might well rely on information provided by the statements or actions of others. A stylized example: If Joan is unaware whether abandoned toxic waste dumps are in fact hazardous, she may be moved in the direction of fear if Mary thinks that fear is justified. If Joan and Mary both believe that fear is justified, Carl may end up thinking so too, at least if he lacks reliable independent information to the contrary. If Joan, Mary, and Carl believe that abandoned hazardous waste dumps are hazardous, Don will have to have a good deal of confidence to reject their shared conclusion. And if Joan, Mary, Carl, and Don present a united front on the issue, others may well go along (81).

Sunstein says science does not support this particular belief, but that a cascade effect caused it to spread anyway. Maybe we should not be so quick to give people the benefit of the doubt when we hear new ideas. Asking questions, doing a bit of fact-checking research, or just not repeating half-heard “truths” could stop this kind of cascade. In principle, it sounds easy, but when there’s a fear component to the rumor, we’re more inclined to accept the possibility of a threat, just to be on the safe side.

Attempting to have access to the Website of Time magazine, they might find themselves opening a page to Citizens for Control of Nuclear Power as well (189).

Sunstein seems to be proposing legally-mandated pop-up ads for differing viewpoints, or some other such intervention made possible by technical details he refuses to specify. Even in 2001, I can’t believe he tried to suggest that we contemplate possibly considering the idea. However, even if he is the only person on the planet who doesn’t hate pop-ups, he’s certainly not the only one who thinks the web needs regulation.

When and Why I Read It

I must have picked it up when I was working for Princeton University Press (2004 to 2008).

My copy has a remainder mark on the bottom edge. As the ink spread up into the pages, it separated into several ugly shades of black, brown, and orange. Remaindered books, fyi, are those that were sold in bulk by the publisher at a big discount. The mark is to prevent the books from being returned for a refund. All of which is to say, the book didn’t sell well. So clearly I’m not the only one having difficulty appreciating its value proposition. On the other hand, my copy is from the third printing, so the first two printings must have sold well, or well enough.

Genre: non-fiction (technology, law, political and social science)
Date started / date finished:  25-Aug-16 to 9-Sep-16
Length: 212 pages
ISBN: 0691095892 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2001 (third printing, 2002)
Amazon link:

Related Books

Maybe Sunstein’s other books, Going to Extremes, and On Rumors, would be more enlightening from the standpoint of psychology. At least those books are more recent.

In fact, there’s an updated version of the book, called 2.0, but I suspect the underlying argument didn’t change much.