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New York Times: Adding Up the Costs of Cyberdemocracy

Jun 03, 2001, 16:44 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Alexander Stille)

Though this article has nothing, nothing at all, to say about Linux, and mentions "open source" only in the context of the technical foundations of the Internet, it should be of interest to any media consumer and it contains observations that could prove useful to readers here.

Drawing from the observations of Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, the article defines "group polarization" as the process wherein "like-minded people in an isolated group reinforce one another's views, which then harden into more extreme positions."

"To Mr. Sunstein, such polarization is just one of the negative political effects of the Internet, which allows people to filter out unwanted information, tailor their own news and congregate at specialized Web sites that closely reflect their own views. A "shared culture," which results partly from exposure to a wide range of opinion, is important for a functioning democracy, he argues. But as the role of newspapers and television news diminishes, he wrote, "and the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving."
This article centers primarily on the effects of this polarization on American political life, but there are applications to any sector with a diversity of views.

The easy response to Mr. Sunstein's views is to mutter "luddite" and move on, which we see often enough when anyone raises questions about potential abuses of (and on) the Internet. We aren't linking to the article to provoke that response though. The more interesting question here is how we, as a community of Linux enthusiasts, formulate our responses and go about reacting to negative "outside" news. It's easy to bash the "clueless mainstream press" when they get a detail wrong, or to pull out the long knives every time a Microsoft executive decides it's a good day to spread a little FUD. It's also easy to embrace a position of permanent resistance and dismiss how the rest of the world perceives things as cluelessness or simple stupidity. It's harder to take the time to figure out why people outside the circle of Linux enthusiasts believe the way they do and act effectively when addressing these perceptions.

After nearly a month of assorted "hot issues" coming and going: Craig Mundie's comments and the assorted reactions to them, the desktop debate, and now Steve Ballmer's latest provocations, it seems worthwhile to take a little time to consider the big picture this article offers.

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