Ethan Zuckerman Review’s Cass Sunstein’s “Infotopia”

Ethan Zuckerman (who probably doesn’t remember me following along two years behind him at Williams) has a nice review of Cass Sunstein’s new book “Infotopia.”  I’m adding it to my reading list.

Sunstein is still concerned with the formation of ideological cocoons. In his new book, Infotopia, he’s become a cyber-enthusiast to an extent that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. Specifically, he’s excited about the ways new online tools make it possible for groups of people to assemble information and accumulate knowledge. He’s become a devotee of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who saw markets, first and foremost, as a way to aggregate information held by a large group of people. There’s ample evidence that Hayek was right in an examination of the failure of planned economies – smart men sitting in a room do a far worse job of setting the price of copper ore or bread than the collected actions of thousands of consumers, iterated over time.

Deliberation vs. distributed information aggregation.  Fascinating.  Sunstein’s a strong supporter of the latter.  I’ll close by stealing Ethan’s closing paragraphs.

Whether or not I agree with all of Sunstein’s conclusions, his quest
for systems that aggregate knowledge across networks is an exciting way
to look at the contemporary Internet. A large number of the most
interesting projects taking place on the Internet use strategies to
aggregate information from multiple users to create new knowledge –
this is the magic behind Google’s PageRank algorithm, Digg’s headlines
and Amazon’s collaborative filtering recommendations. Analyzing these
systems in terms of their effectiveness in getting people to reveal
hidden knowledge is, in my opinion, an excellent framework for
evaluation. (I’m very interested, for instance, in thinking through how
the folksonomy and taxonomy systems David Weinberger is exploring in
his forthcoming “Everything Is Miscellaneous” use different mechanisms to assemble information from different actors to organize information.)

It’s also useful to confront Sunstein’s fear of information cocoons
again, five years later. Sunstein’s examples of cocooning are
interpersonal ones in this book, governments and firms that manage
themselves in ways to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths, as
opposed to individuals burying themselves in sympathetic media. But
media cocooning is a problem for individuals as well, consumers of
online and offline media. I suspect it’s possible to use some of the
Hayekian thinking about collecting diverse information to create media
aggregators capable of breaking cocoons and exposing people to views
and perspectives they might otherwise have missed.