CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 4th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Sunstein I: Customization, Information and the Requirements of Democracy

Introduction: Democracy and Discussion

In this part of the course we've seen different views not only of what effects technology (and media) can be expected to have on a well-functioning democracy, but of what characteristics are most essential to such a democracy. If Cherny was most concerned with reviving a kind of popular participation in government, and Lippmann with raising questions about the power and competence of public opinion, Cass Sunstein is concerned with what makes for substantive participation, expression and opinion in a democracy. More than participation and opinion per se, Sunstein wants us to think about the quality of information exchanges and discussions that are necessary to a healthy democracy.

In his classic 1948 essay, "A Political Credo," the American economist Henry C. Simons wrote:

Democracy .. is basically a process of government by free, intelligent discussion. It is a means for promoting discussion of obtrusive social problems and for achieving continuous improvement of the moral order through experimental action-out-of-discussion. ... Effective discussion presupposes an elaborate division of labor -- between agitators and dispassionate students, between debaters and inquirers, between specialists and philosophers, between political tacticians and statesmen; and, at the highest levels, it presupposes hierarchies of competence, based on the standards of many intellectual disciplines, with groups shifting from the status of arbiter-authorities to that of laymen as different problems arise for discussion. ... With good government, the discussion of problems is more important than the action to which it immediately leads. ... Sound democracy must continuously reaffirm faith in its own processes. (from Economic Policy for a Free Society (1948))

Do you think Simons' assumptions in this passage were shared by the Lippmann of Public Opinion? Do you think they are shared by Cherny and Sunstein? Do you think Simons' description characterizes contemporary democratic ideals, or only ones that made sense in the 20th century?

The reason we should consider Simons' text and these questions at the outset is that republic.com relates the quality of a democracy to the quality of the discussions that can be expected to occur regularly or reliably. Sunstein insists that a "well-functioning democracy" requires "a well-functioning system of free expression", and he questions whether a technology like the Internet can be said to promote such a democracy when it allows for such radical personal control of one's exposure to information and opinion.

A Word about Tuesday, and a Final Word on Public Opinion

Do you consider the results of the Presidential election an interesting gloss on, or an implicit confirmation or critique of, any of the ideas in Cherny's The Next Deal, Lippmann's Public Opinion, or Sunstein's republic.com? I'll hand out some breakdowns of the voting, based on exit polls, that might help with the discussion.

As we didn't have time to discuss the last chapter of Lippmann's book in any detail, we'll begin with a brief discussion of "Organized Intelligence". One question we should eventually consider is whether we believe in the possibility of the sort of politically "neutral" expertise that Lippmann seems to have in mind, and whether science is in fact a good model for organized intelligence in the political realm.

Cass Sunstein's republic.com

We'll discuss the first four chapters of the book, with a particular emphasis on Sunstein's sense of what characterizes a healthy democracy and what threatens a healthy democracy.

For Tuesday:: Finish Sunstein's republic.com, and post your topics for the 2nd paper to the list by the end of the day on Wednesday (November 10th).

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