A Republic, If You Can Keep It

08:56pm | 04/25/2018
Daniel Tompkins


Nicco's class Media and Journalism in the Digital Age has assembled an ambitious amount of material, but has centered around "news", or perhaps a rapidly changing idea of what "news media" is... We talked about the extensive woes of print news; yet it still manages to conjure the most powerful image of News— or the ideals of a journalistic practice.

No doubt The Post (the recent film) has sought to reinforce that feeling.1 It had Spielberg's classic cinematic affect, but a healthy optimism for ethics in journalism— especially in parallel with the "fake news" crisis. In class, we did touch upon the physical speed at which printed news (despite those incredible whirring machines!) lags behind digital; but, I'm curious about printed books as well...

There is certainly something to be gained from books— real, thick books— that probably won't ever be found on the Web. But how often can I find a book that's really as cutting and new as the material I read online? A book is special because it organizes information differently, and forces a commitment to actually sit down— to gather and reinforce a coherent set of ideas over the course of a few days, or weeks. But not always— it's not easy to find a book that does well to be a book when we have the Internet. I'm sure that's something the author has to learn to understand and evaluate, and presents an interesting challenge.

Anyways, Cass Sunstein did a wonderful job with #republic, and it was a set of ideas that required a good, sizeable book.2 I would say "fake news" isn't really an appropriate or popular name for the crisis, that it's more of a "crisis of freedom". Part of the analysis that Cass made conveys a sense that digital information and communication technologies (ICT) primarily create choice. We have a great many of choices today, and not enough are real— let alone particularly useful by way of deliberative democracy.

Cass uses the pages well to reveal and assess this crisis— with some valuable, and sharply relevant arguments and analyses on the same expressedly "hybrid" media environment David Karpf describes in his book, Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy.3 Karpf really provided a thorough introduction into what is happening in the realm of digital ICTs, and Sunstein lends a complimentary argument— especially in the function of psychology and social sciences— perhaps best summarized here:

In general, it is precisely the people most likely to filter out opposing views who most need to hear them.4

Social media has given democracy a whole new set of problems— and further complicated some very old ones. Sunstein pulls together a number of studies that, in some cases, affirm previously observed social phenomena— but in a digital space. The conformity of a group has been documented and referenced to excess in the well-known study by Soloman Asch (1951-53), then at Swarthmore College.5 Asch discovered that a staunch group with embedded principles could generate statistically-significant social pressure in influencing, or even altering, a single member's opinions— even when provided with clear evidence disproving the group's beliefs.

If you're unfamiliar with the experiment, here's a paraphrase: the subject— as part of a larger group of confederates— was presented with an image of three vertical lines of differing length. They would then be given another card displaying a single line, and were asked to choose the corresponding line from the group of three which had the same length. The confederates were asked to purposely pick the wrong option; and 37 of 50 participants chose the popular option.

It's interesting to note that similar instances of social preference remain consistent online. Sunstein provides a more recent (2006) example in a study carried out by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts. In the experiment, Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market, groups of people were asked to determine their favorite song from a curated set of previously unknown music.6 Participants were found to show a tendency to use the number of downloads as a metric for quality.

Now, I know this isn't picking a 3 in. line when it definitely doesn't match the 4 in. one; but it's yet another way our decisions can be unconsciously influenced by how we perceive the choices of others. Additionally, the Inequality and Unpredictability study is somewhat of a misnomer. Recent studies in the re-emergent field of network science are showing that this behavior is traceable in a number of complex systems— known as preferential attachment. When new nodes enter a scale-free network, they're likely to build connections with nodes exhibiting a higher degree (more connectivity).

In the last post, looking at John Wihbey's News in a Time of Factual Recession: Understanding Networked Media and Populist Knowledge, I wrote more explicitly on the topic of network topologies and their observable behaviors— like preferential attachment.7 Network science is combining with social psychology in some fascinating ways because of the Web and social media.

However, perhaps with my background in architecture, I appreciated the "analog" reference to Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities in Sunstein's introduction:

It is possible to be on excellent sidewalk terms with people who are very different from oneself and even, as time passes, on familiar public terms with them. Such relationships can, and do, endure for many years, for decades...

The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors— differences that often go far deeper than differences in color— which are possible and normal in intensely urban life...

are possible and normal only when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together...

Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow.8

In previous posts, I've expressed interest in using spatial analogies to understand how we might carve out similar public "spaces" online; and what the rights of digital citizen might entail in these spaces and elsewhere. I'm taking to heart some of Sunstein's suggestions for how to build a more democratic web— especially the idea of spontaneous "shared experiences". As an artist, I'm interested in the different ways to create those experiences online, especially through video and other visual media. Sunstein suggested something like: "deliberativedemocracy.org" to host a 24/7 forum for social and political deliberation.

The domain is still available, but absurdly expensive for a graduate student. I hope l-o-o-s-e-d.net will suffice for some future experiments.


1 Spielberg, Steven. The Post. 20th Century Fox, 2017.

2 Sunstein, Cass R. #republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

3 Karpf, David. Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

4 Ibid. 2

5 Asch, Solomon E. "Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One against a Unanimous Majority." Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 70, no. 9 (1956): 1-70. Accessed April 26, 2018. doi:10.1037/h0093718.

6 Salganik, M. J. "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market." Science 311, no. 5762 (2006): 854-56. doi:10.1126/science.1121066.

7 Wihbey, John P. News in a Time of Factual Recession: Understanding Networked Media and Populist Knowledge. Manuscript, MIT Press, 2018.

8 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. London: Pelican, 1964.