I had an argument with a professor last night, and held my own I think. As Linguist Friend pointed out later, that's about the best one can expect to do. (If nothing else, law school teaches one appreciation for arguing to a draw with someone smarter than you, though admittedly Katy-the-Wise has given me practice in that for years.)
Basically, he argued the side presented in the first few chapters of Cass Sunstein's Republic.com 2.0, that the internet is creating a world where, say, a rabid sports fan can read about nothing but sports and almost never be exposed to an idea not about sports. Or, more realistically, and I think more troublesome to Sunstein, a conservative can read all day and never be exposed to an idea that doesn't come from conservatives and that culturally we are losing our common spaces.
Sunstein is concerned about technology that lets us filter out ideas we don't agree with. I will admit that people's tendency to do this themselves bugs me. LinguistFriend's church has a sign up that says something like "Take what you like and leave the rest." I couldn't disagree more and think the ideas in church that bug you are the ones you need to wrestle with most. God knows the issue that bugs me the most, Politics in Church, has given me lots of time wondering about the church's place in political life and if I'm discouraging the next Martin Luther King. I still think I'm right, but I do think about that stuff.
But I think the internet does more good than bad in exposing us to new ideas and to those we disagree with. My professor mentioned that a white supremacist child could surf all day and read only the people they disagree with. Is that a theoretical possibility? Sure. But I would think that every time they googled for more, they would have to pick through the articles criticizing the very ideas they were reading about. If I wanted to raise my kid a white supremacist (I'm going to go ahead and emphasize that I do not, since there are a few people who read me who have real trouble with the subjunctive tense and toy situations) the last thing I would do is give them free access to the internet.
All that I said in class.
What I didn't do is quote Robertson Davies, who decades ago expressed what I'm getting at when he wrote:
“‘Children, don’t speak so coarsely,’ said Mr. Webster, who had a vague notion that some supervision should be exercised over his daughters’ speech, and that a line should be drawn, but never knew quite when to draw it. He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library.”
Sunstein believes than when everybody was reading the Washington Post and listening to Walter Cronkite, we had a sort of intellectual "common space" that we are losing because of the abundance of people's media choices and their ability to chose people who disagree with them*.
This argument bothers me on some level and part of this discomfort is that I suspect these "common spaces" were mostly common to white middle class people. For an illustration, I've lived in small towns twice, once as a reporter for the town's only newspaper and once as a regular person, and I've seen how in small towns, there are people who exist and people who don't. As a reporter, I never noticed how though I was thrown into the thick of small town gossip and society and invited to parties and talked to on the street, other people were not. Until I was living in a different small town as just a regular person, isolated from all of that and expected to live in town and make friends and go to one of the correct churches and work on civic projects and have a good job for years on end before I really counted.
I suspect that it was society's "people that counted" who listened to Walter Cronkite and felt great commonality with everybody who did the same, they just don't realize that the people who didn't count felt differently because they didn't notice the people who didn't count. It's a big hint to me that I've never seen one of those "Wasn't it great when you knew your grocer?" columns written by anything other than an older white man.
Or, to put it more succinctly, to describe these "common spaces" Sunstein keeps using an example of a park where you invariably encountered a variety of people, situations and ideas. I wonder if black people were allowed to use the park.
But that's a little theoretical for a law school argument and I didn't make it. Ok, I might have if I had formulated the question about black people being allowed to use the park, but I'm afraid that was a bit of esprit de l'escalier on my part.
Ok, one final comment on the weirdness of Sunstein's argument about filtering technology allowing us to read about things that we want and nothing else: it assumes that people have only one interest or one set of people whom they view as "like them."
That's just crazy. In class, I pointed out that an African-American, lesbian, country music fan probably thinks of herself as all of those things and if she watches BET, reads Gay magazines and listens to the country station, she's being exposed to a very wide array of conflicting ideas. After all, African American and Gay sources rarely shy away from political comment and Country stations play Toby Keith and some of them still won't play the Dixie Chicks.
But my professor thought that example was a little bit of a straw man. So fine, let's look at me, only two characteristics of me. It's ten a.m. and I've already quoted Roberston Davies, and my pit bull mix woke me up this morning. I'm a Robertson Davies fan who owns a pit bull mix. You think that if I go hang out with Robertson Davies fans and pitbull fans, on the internet and otherwise, I'm not going to be exposed to different ideas and disagreements?
But even that is giving Sunstein's idea too much credit because pit bull owners and Robertson Davies fans aren't the only groups I belong to. I also like to read libertarians, though I don't always agree, and I like law and I like mystery novels and I'm married to an engineer and exposed to lots of geek culture and I'm a Unitarian and I have dinner once a week with my very liberal best friend. I'm white of mostly British descent with a bit of European mutt mixed in. I'm rather east coast, married into a southern family.
All of these interests and identities expose me to ideas, political ones and not, ones I agree with and ones I don't, and some that grow on me or fade with time.
And I think the complexities of my nature and interests are far more true to the way actual people are than Sunstein's model of people with only one interest, even only one political interest, and a laser focus on that.
*I should mention that I have great intellectual disgust for anyone who sees reading and listening only to liberals (or conservatives) who agree with them as a goal that they are actively striving to achieve. I just think there are fewer of these people than Sunstein does and think they are certainly not a majority, and that they have always existed.
I really don't think white supremacists, to use a favorite example of my professors, have ever read the Washington Post much and I doubt that most of them trusted Walter Cronkite. I think extremists have always shunned the "common spaces" or at least only talked and never listened when they were there.