Bubble Trouble

by Henry on September 5, 2011

The _American Prospect_ has published a “review essay”:http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=bubble_trouble I wrote on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594203008/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=1594203008 (I’m not quite sure when this went up on the WWW; I’ve been travelling). It’s an interesting book, which takes some of the empirical developments that Tyler Cowen enthused about in _The Age of the Infovore_ and comes to diametrically opposite conclusions about their normative implications.

bq. What Cowen sees as enhancing individual autonomy, Pariser sees as restricting personal development. Instead of constructing personal micro-economies that allow us to make sense of complexity, we are turning media into a mirror that reflects our own prejudices back at us. Even worse, services like Google and Facebook distort the mirror so that it exaggerates our grosser characteristics. Without our knowing, they reshape our information worlds according to their interpretation of our interests … We are beginning to live in what Pariser calls “filter bubbles,” personalized micro-universes of information that overemphasize what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. … Cowen’s ideal world—where the private vice of self-centered information leads to the public virtue of a lively interactive culture—is unlikely to be self-sustaining. It’s also difficult to see how regulation could pop information bubbles. … As Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued, partisanship creates its own checks and balances. As long as partisans are contending for a majority of public support, they have to temper their own beliefs in ways that will allow them to appeal to the public and to respond to potentially persuasive arguments from their opponents. Democratic competition is not a complete solution. It does not protect individuals from a narrowing of their horizons. … Even so, democracies are far more robust against information bubbles than Pariser believes.

Back to Berlin

by John Quiggin on September 5, 2011

So, I finally stumbled across Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Chapter 1 of which ‘The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West’ ends as follows

a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted,it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant[1], a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason, no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.

Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic to what Berlin is saying here. Revolutionary utopianism has been a disaster, particularly for the left. But, we still need a feasible version of utopia to oppose to the appeal of irrationalist tribalism and the naked self-interest of the top 1 per cent. And, whatever Berlin may have intended by it, “prevent people from doing each other too much harm” should not mean leaving the rich to enjoy the fruits of a system constructed in their own interests, and letting the devil take the hindmost.

A social democratic and feasible utopia should giving all human beings (individually and as a member of various groups) sufficient room and resources to pursue their own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends with a reasonably equal capability of achieving ends that are feasible given the resources available to society as a whole.

It’s hard to spell out what that means, but I think easy enough to see that developed societies were moving in that direction, broadly speaking, until the 1970s, and are mostly moving away from it today (with some exceptions in areas like gay rights). The failure of the market liberal model to deliver on its promises, evident in the global financial crisis, along with the current struggle over austerity provides an opportunity to recover some of the ground lost in the last thirty years while, hopefully preserving the gains.

fn1. As in many such cases, our blog’s name and tagline owe at least as much to Berlin’s translation as to Kant’s original.