Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Enclave Extremism

I just read Cass R. Sunstein's fascinating essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Dec 14, 2007, p. B9), entitled "The Polarization of Extremes." I enjoyed this piece so much that I might add it to the reading list for a forthcoming offering of my course, COMM 149: Rhetoric and Public Life.

The essay begins with a reference to Nicholas Negroponte's prediction of "The Daily Me," an increasingly possible newspaper designed entirely around a person's customizable interests and beliefs. Sunstein then transitions from print-based information to internet-based information, noting how online technologies such as collaborative filtering allow interest groups to arise and flourish without the risk of being contaminated by contrary opinions. A person who subscribes only to the interests of left-handed albino Eskimo pipe-welders, for example, can find only those books, articles, blogs, and opinions that relate to that community. As a result:
[W]e live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches--much of it voluntary, much of it produced by those who think they know, and often do know, what we're likely to like. This raises some obvious questions. If people are sorted into enclaves and niches, what will happen to their views? What are the eventual effects on democracy? (p. B9)
Sunstein then outlines a 2005 Colorado experiment that invited groups of people to discuss controversial issues in order to determine the role of group interaction on personal opinion (elsewhere he summarizes that experiment). As anyone who has studied groupthink will tell you, the results were hardly surprising, though they were certainly interesting. Among the findings: (1) individual opinions became intensified when they were organized in like-minded groups and (2) divergent opinions within enclavic groups became squelched. From this foundation, Sunstein poses the notion of enclave extremism:
When people end up in enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group's members were originally inclined. (p. B9)
After some analysis of the causes of this effect, Sunstein concludes with a reminder that enclave extremism is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, he notes, civil rights campaigns that sought to transform seemingly implacable attitudes about race and gender required clarity of opinion and precision of goals. Yet, he emphasizes, enclave extremism also contains the seeds of danger.
There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong, simply because they have not been sufficiently exposed to counterarguments. They may even think of their fellow citizens as opponents or adversaries in some kind of "war." (p. B9)
Suddenly all that "red state/blue state" silliness attains more significance than I'd previously considered.

Read the essay: While the Chronicle piece is no longer available freely, you can read a version of the essay here:

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