Throughout this brief exploration I endeavor to situate John Rawls’s theory of “public reason” against the conceptual backcloth of Jurgen Habermas’s “deliberative democracy” and Robert Putnam’s “bridging” and “bonding” tactics for group identity formation. I will then apply these aggregate insights to 1) the thorny nettle of web personalization, 2) the problematic of political self-enclosure, and 3) the notion of confirmation bias by assessing their indeterminate roles both in facilitating and forfending coalition building across difference, or, what in my view amounts to the sine qua non for ensuring a healthy democracy premised on the fact of human difference. To this end, I propose two interrelated questions: 1) What is at stake democratically in an era of the self-effacing proliferation of web personalization programming? And, 2) how might we understand the seeming contradiction between the democratization (form) and deep political segmentation (content) endemic to the algorithmic function of political persuasion mapping on the Internet?
In John Rawls’s 1997 article entitled “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” he contends that “the idea of public reason belongs to a conception of a well ordered constitutional democratic society...and the form and content of this reason--the way it is understood by citizens and how it interprets their political relationship --is part of the idea of democracy itself” (2). Rawls further suggests that the single most basic feature of democracy is “the fact of reasonable pluralism," or the unavoidable presence of a plurality of conflicting “comprehensive doctrines” - religious, philosophical, moral, and therefore, political. Jurgen Habermas appropriates portions of Rawls’s argument to demonstrate that the utilization of public reason in political discourse must always remain in service of democratic principles such as justice, equality, peace, and freedom. For Habermas, however, the organization of a well-nourished democracy is not based in consensus “but rather on something like a warranted presumption of reasonableness” (in Gutmann, 9). Such a construal of the democratic process necessarily dislodges the conditions of its own being, that is, it becomes no longer premised on a “congruent subject of self-legislating discourse” (in Gutmann, 10). This insight is critical because self-legislating discourses often justify the dismissal of political perspectives with which one disagrees. Simply stated, for Habermas, the democratic project is a deliberative one precisely because it requires conversation with those whose values and “comprehensive doctrines” may contravene with one's own.
Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2001 magnum opus, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and revival of American Community, asserts that community is the foundation on which a functioning democracy must be build. He complicates his own contention by distinguishing between two types of tactics for community formation (he calls it “social capital building”): bridging (inclusive) and bonding (exclusive). Bonding networks are inward-looking and often tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups. Examples of such networks include the Nation of Islam or country clubs. In contrast, bridging networks are outward looking and include people across "diverse social cleavages." Examples of bridging social capital include the 1960's Freedom Movement. As Putnam writes, “bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40“ (23). While useful for heuristic purposes, this bonding/bridging distinction is not an "either/or" category, but rather exhibits a "more or less" dimensionality. That is, community identity is often developed vis-a-vis both bonding and bridging forms simultaneously. The strategy of “bridging,” which is essential for “building community across difference” was of course itself a Sysiphian task long before the age of web personalization, but it is reasonable to argue that the Internet- and more pointedly, monopolistic sites like Google and Facebook who utilize such preference mapping algorithm- are making it increasingly difficult both to find those with views antithetical to ours and to locate information that challenges our inherently limited categorical presuppositions.
What, for example, does it mean to live in a world in which access to information that fails to ratify our previously established preferences is occluded from our purview? What does this phenomenon mean for those who seek to “coalition build” across social, political, economic, cultural, or religious axes of difference?
Eli Pariser, former Executive Director of MoveOn.org, explores a number of these questions in his most recent book, The Filter Bubble, throughout which he laments the ever ubiquitous presence of web personalization, or code that maps the algorithms of our individual web use and “assists” us in more easily locating the items conforming to our preferences. Although web personalization may often appear innocuous -- desirable at times-- its stated corporate function is to designed to index our consumer preferences from shoes to toothpaste to condoms.
Whatever the benefits, the purpose of these services is far from politically neutral. By now, however, many likely know that Google and Facebook alike pander to corporate interests by pilfering and then selling our ostensibly private information. Although clearly corrosive of the public sphere, I’m not so interested in deploying the well-rehearsed and well-deserved calumniations against corporate advertising firms, but rather in considering what is at stake civically in web personalization and exploring the relationship between political polarization and preference mapping algorithms furtively embedded in nearly aspect of the web.
Algorithmic codes have now begun to shield us from alternative viewpoints. Personalization now means that I, as a radical leftist, and my Uncle Vincent, as a vociferous votary of Sean Hannity, will actually capture different results when we conduct the same exact Google News search. That is, my Uncle Vincent and I are likely to see results that come from news sources that each of us prefers - sources that tend to corroborate our existing political persuasions. The upshot: Uncle Vincent and I will have our informational biases reflected back to us, and typically without the knowledge that our news feeds have been personalized.
Pariser rightly states that “web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes [wherein] each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms—rather than challenges—our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities” (3). In psychology this phenomenon is referred to as confirmation bias, that is, the common proclivity to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. The political and civic implications of confirmation bias are pernicious precisely because they are often so invisible. Political validation, of course, helps us to build and sustain an ego, though not a democracy.
In the 1950‘s political sociologists minted the term “homophily” - love of the same- to explain our unyielding propensity to find those people who confirm, rather than test, our core beliefs. The term did not catch on, but it might as well have because we have been collocating our lives to surround ourselves with people who think a lot like we do and phasing out those who do not share our opinions and tastes. As writes, Pariser, “We've chosen our neighborhoods, religious congregations, civic and political organizations, the cultural spaces we frequent, and our friendship circles so that we can experience our worldview reflected back to us and minimize dissonance” (22). Web personalization, unfortunately, both quickens and, most problematically, invisibilizes, our homophilic trends. Therefore, we must remain critical of localized public spheres that become echo chambers (I go to U.C. Berkeley, believe me, I know what it’s like!). Further, we must transform types of public discourse anchored in homophilic megalomania to those characterized by deliberative democratic discourse aimed at building coalition across difference.
Reaching a broader audience- an audience whose members ineluctably hold varying “comprehensive doctrines” - is a challenge that activists of all stripes must surmount. That is, if we are to leverage the kind of collective will it takes to enact the type of social transformation that holds its weight in water, then we must construct broad coalitions of deeply heterogeneous social forces. Such a task- already challenging- becomes evermore onerous as the public information-scape becomes increasingly partitioned.
Web personalization currently enables us to find people that share our political persuasions and passions but we’ve all but lost the capacity to reach a broad audience. This constitutes a deep threat to public life and to the pursuit of the democratic project itself. Ten years ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone that U.S. adults were less involved in civic organizations and therefore in the public sphere than they were only a generation ago. While our generation might not be bowling alone, we’re certainly surfing alone. Web personalization has us languishing in a sea of single-mindedness and we’re getting tossed around in the tempestuous tides of political parochialism. Some of us have the oars and others have the boats. We remain separate. But if we are to create a public sphere worthy of the name - one whose values are premised on those of comity, community, and compromise - then our political expression must engage beyond the provincialism of partisan protectionism, for the difference between reading what we want to read and reading what we need to read is the difference between democrat and democracy, between republican and republic.
"The Idea of Public Reason Revisited." John Rawls. The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Summer, 1997), pp. 765-807 Published by: The University of Chicago Law Review
Gutmann, Amy. Why Deliberative Democracy? New jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.