CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 22nd -- Roger B. Blumberg

Lippmann I: The Nature and Limits of Public Opinion

Introduction: Space, Time and Democratic Politics

In the final chapter of "Stereotypes", part 3 of Public Opinion, Lippmann discusses our (subjective) senses of time and space and the difference these can make to our interpretation of historical facts and political positions. His criticisms here are in some ways more fundamental than his earlier claims about the limited competence of public opinion, because they suggest that competent political judgements require abilities that will be rare even in most "experts". He writes:

In putting together our public opinions, not only do we have to picture more space than we can see with our eyes, and more time than we can feel, but we have to describe and judge more people, more actions, more things than we can ever count, or vividly imagine." (95)

A question that Cherny did not raise in The Next Deal is how a technology like the Internet further complicates what Lippmann calls "the proper calculation" of time and space for the purposes of political judgement. A number of contemporary writers have argued that information technology affects our perception of social/political time and space, and that this has enormous implications for the future of politics. Specifically, the introduction of a global information network, like the Web, is thought by some to signal a the collapse of the value of duration and distance, and therefore create a "disorientation" concerning the political relations between people, societies, economies and nations.

In a 1995 essay titled "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!", for example, the architect and theorist Paul Virilio wrote:

Cyberspace is a new form of perspective. It does not coincide with the audio-visual perspective which we already know. It is a fully new perspective, free of any previous reference: it is a tactile perspective. To see at a distance, to hear at a distance: that was the essence of the audio-visual perspective of old. But to reach at a distance, to feel at a distance, that amounts to shifting the perspective towards a domain it did not yet encompass: that of contact, of contact-at-a-distance: tele-contact.


The dictatorship of speed at the limit will increasingly clash with representative democracy. When some essayists address us in terms of "cyber-democracy", of virtual democracy; when others state that "opinion democracy" is going to replace "political parties democracy", one cannot fail to see anything but this loss of orientation in matters political, of which the March 1994 "media-coup" by Mr. Silvio Berlusconi was an Italian-style prefiguration...

The very word "globalization" is a fake. There is no such thing as globalization, there is only virtualization. What is being effectively globalized by instantaneity is time. Everything now happens within the perspective of real time: henceforth we are deemed to live in a "one-time-system".

So, a first question for the day, before we return to the chapter presentations is whether you think information technologies, and specifically networks like the Internet, have addressed any of the major problems Lippmann noted, and how you see Cherny's vision in light of (having read the first half of) Public Opinion.

Public Opinion, Parts 1-4

In Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion, written in 1922, we find a provocative challenge to our attitudes about what we can and should expect from popular judgement in the realm of politics, and thus to our expectations for democracy. As with our reading of the passages from de Toqueville, we can ask with nearly every page of Lippmann:

"Stereotypes": Part 3 of Public Opinion

In my presentation of Part 3 of Lippmann's book I'll focus on the following questions:

For Next Tuesday:: Read Parts 4-8 of Public Opinion, and see if you can get a rise out of anyone at Thanksgiving by bringing up issues raised in the book.

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