The Internet is clearly having a big impact on democracy and the public sphere, and there aren’t many more divergent takes on it than those of Franklin Foer and Cass Sunstein. Foer, in his new book World Without Mind, takes what you might call a supply-side view: technology affects society mainly through the actions of big tech companies. Unlike supply-side economics, he doesn’t think much of these large capitalists. Their “aspir[ation] to pattern our lives and habits” (Foer 231), whether for profit or in the service of an ideology, weakens democracy and degrades what Foer considers good in society. Sunstein, on the other hand, takes not so much the opposite view as an orthogonal view. His 2017 book #Republic is a thorough, disinterested, and more scientific analysis of the effects that social media and the Internet have on society. Ultimately, it’s about the dynamics of information in the public sphere - both before and after the advent of the Internet - and what sorts of information dynamics are compatible with democratic government.
Predictably, coming from someone who describes his profession as a “great ink-stained tradition” (Foer 131), Foer’s entry in this debate is the more engaging read. He tells a clear story, with a villain (“the CEOs of the big tech companies”, Foer 62), a cast of heroes (“[i]ntellectuals, freelance writers, investigative journalists” and other participants in written culture, Foer 5), and a classic David-vs-Goliath plot. The story runs like this: once upon a time, after the development of the printing press but before the Internet took off, being a writer was good. Specifically, it was remunerative: speaking of his time at Slate, when print still dominated the industry, Foer says that “[i]n those golden years, back in the midnineties, we paid one thousand dollars for each book review, and a few of our stars made even more than that.” (Foer 170)
Writers fell from this Eden after being tempted by the snake of big tech companies. Publications thought they could put their work online for free and a business model would somehow appear; once this process began, Big Tech had every incentive to accelerate it and help it along. Jeff Bezos, whose original business of bookselling is near to Foer’s heart, comes in for an especially severe tongue-lashing.
This treatment makes for some vivid anecdotes, like basically anything Foer says about Stewart Brand, but ultimately it’s only so helpful in understanding the world. The basic thesis, that a small number of tech CEOs are responsible for what’s wrong with journalism and culture, is lacking. There’s quite a lot to criticize in tech-company behavior, of course, especially Silicon Valley’s open-secret monopolies1, but we ought to consider the counterfactual. If someone with a narrower vision than Larry Page had founded the leading search engine in the late 90s, alternate-universe Google would be a different company and might pursue different projects. But the business model the real Google found wasn’t just a product of Page’s authorial intent: it emerged from the economic system and scientific culture prevailing at the time. What sort of changes in society or government policy would it have taken to let Google find a substantially different way of doing business? And what implications would those changes have for public debate? Foer’s anger at tech CEOs, justified though it may be, doesn’t provide any answers.
Sunstein’s take in #Republic is broader and more useful (if less entertaining). His topic is the discursive public sphere and technology’s impact on it, and ultimately “the kind of culture that is best suited to a well-functioning democracy” (Sunstein 6). It’s heavy stuff, presented without the same narrative flair as Foer, but with a hefty dose of comprehensiveness and predictive power to compensate.
The basic thesis of #Republic is that, unlike Foer’s account, public debate depends sensitively on the structure of the media2, and that democratic culture requires media that promote common and coincidental experiences. (Sunstein 5) Highly personalized, optimized and bespoke media, like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, undermine the common frame of reference and social solidarity previously provided by “general-interest intermediaries” (Sunstein 13) and even earlier by literal public forums. It’s important both that there be common experiences, to preserve social cohesion, and also that individuals be regularly exposed to ideas they don’t currently hold, to “ensure against fragmentation, polarization and extremism.” (Sunstein 7)
There’s much more in #Republic: Sunstein covers the law of free speech, such philosophical models of free speech as the theory of “consumer sovereignty” (Sunstein 30) and why the Internet is always being regulated3, tying it all together into a cohesive theory of public discourse. It’s worth noting the contrast with Foer, whose perspective is narrowly focused on the interests and difficulties of “writers.” Even where he considers broad developments, the tacit assumption is that they matter insofar as they affect how much writing is done and by whom. Sunstein, on the other hand, is at pains not to center any particular group in his analysis. The core of his book is a detached look at how information spreads and people’s opinions change: from “cybercascades” (Sunstein 24) to the recurring specter of the “Daily Me” (Sunstein 1). The dynamics apply just as well to people having coincidental encounters with protesters on the street as they do to consumers of self-consciously literary commentary.
Sunstein’s analysis, simply put, has the advantage of being both more useful and likely to be closer to the truth. It’s difficult to think of cases where Foer’s framework makes predictions or recommendations, beyond the simple one that problems caused by tech companies would go away if the companies did, but Sunstein makes a number of such predictions. His ideas range from the broad (“must-carry” policies and subsidy schemes for journalism) to the narrow (“serendipity buttons” on social networks), but his analysis clearly implies all of them (Sunstein 214-215). An entire chapter is called “Proposals.”
It’s true that predictive usefulness is not the only appropriate measure of a piece of social commentary. Raising awareness, coalition-building and even literary elegance are all worthwhile goals (one suspects Foer would be particularly fond of the last one). But both Sunstein and Foer, among any other goals, aspire to answer what Foer calls “the questions at the heart of this book”; if we accept that Sunstein did so more completely, it’s worth asking why.
An excellent answer comes from Foer himself, recounting the story of a professor examining a small-town newspaper’s editorial decisions. The professor “concluded that the newspaper was a product of [its editor’s] biases - his preference for narrative over statistics, his professional caution.” This same preference for narrative that’s visible in media coverage of the news is a clear difference between Foer and Sunstein: one wrote a narrative, and has a more readable book to show for it; the other wrote an academic treatise, and answered the question better. Narratives, after all, need characters. Tech company CEOs are very accessible characters and even more accessible villains, while the economic consequences of technology aren’t.
People, in other words, may find narratives more engaging, but they’re not always the best way to engage with a complex topic.
Foer, Franklin. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. Kindle edition.
Sunstein, Cass. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017. Kindle edition.
The absolutely millenarian justifications for monopoly that Foer discusses are, for my money, the most interesting part of his book by far. ↩
If we define “media” very broadly - “streets and parks” are media in this reading, as ways and places for people to exchange information. ↩
Basically: because property rights are a form of regulation. (Sunstein 179) ↩