COCOON, THE RETURN. In TNR's new Open University blog, Cass Sunstein has a post describing ideological amplification -- the tendency of likeminded people to reinforce and intensify ideological positions when dissenting viewpoints aren't included. David Greenberg follows up, applying the notion explicitly to the blogosphere and mentioning Sunstein's old book Republic.com, which had warned that the internet would encourage cocooning and ideological echo chambers that would produce extremism and damage serious deliberation.
Sunstein has a sequel of a sorts to Republic.com coming out called Infotopia. I haven't had a chance to read through it carefully, but it appears to take a somewhat more optimistic view of the internet's effect on politics and deliberation, and to the extent that my impression is accurate, I'm glad to see it. Sunstein basically wrote Republic.com before blogs and internet political discourse came into their modern form, and I think it made a somewhat plausible guess about what the future would hold that just turned out to be wrong. Needless to say, cocooning, echo-chamber self-reinforcement, and a lack of thoughtful deliberation are all problems we know about in the political blogosphere, but the question always to keep in mind is, "compared to what?"
The internet itself, as well as the prevailing practices and customs of political blogs, bring one into contact with an exponentially greater quantity of commentary and ideas from opposing ideological and political outlooks than was possible in the past. True, to the extent a liberal blog reader becomes acquainted with right-wing blogs it's often in the context of reading vicious and sometimes bad-faith takedowns of said conservative blogs by liberal bloggers (and vice versa, of course). But the simple fact remains that only a tiny number of politically engaged liberals have or have ever had print subscriptions to multiple conservative magazines (and vice versa, again), so in the absence of the internet the amount of exposure one would get to opposing views would be far smaller. The elimination of access barriers to more information, and the proliferation of new sources of information, have straightforwardly had the effect of bringing different viewpoints into closer engagement and contention. Hell, here in TAP blogdom, the strenuous efforts of Specialist alone serve as a refutation of Sunstein's worries.