MG: It’s a great question. And, you’re right, people have always coalesced into interest groups, etc. If they hadn’t, we’d have, essentially, social anarchy. But the difference now comes down to information itself. The facts of the world. People who watch Fox aren’t just fed a different perspective on current events from people who watch MSNBC; they’re fed entirely different information. That’s its own kind of anarchy.
Also, though the Romantic Democratist in me loves the notion of a ‘we’re all in this together” attitude…I don’t mean to suggest that I think that’s been, to any real degree, the way of the world. There have always been divisions, as you say—just as there’s always been strife. (Colonial America, after all—that era that the Romantic Democratist in me holds in such high esteem—was a time of immense, and often quite vitriolic, partisanship. Newspaper editors, during the colonial period and in the early days of the Republic, often resolved political disagreements with brawls and even full-on duels.) What’s different now, though, again, is the information element: while maybe we never had a warm-and-fuzzy sense of “community,” what we did have was shared information that, implicitly, bound us together.
JP: So what does that mean for democracy? And what does this all have to do with the Web?
MG: Well, it means a lot. The problem isn’t just the present reality—although there are certainly many problems we can observe with the cognitive permissiveness of the niche right now—the bigger problem, really, is the trajectory we’re on.
One element of that trajectory: reality itself is taking on a moral sensibility—as if its discrete elements, the atomic units of reality formerly known as facts, were simply things that we have the luxury of choosing among. Hugely problematic, obviously, generally—but particularly so when it comes to democracy. Which is a system of government predicated on the notion of shared ideas and information. Citizens are presented with certain discrete elements of democracy: a slate of candidates, say—who, in turn, embody a whole tangle of positions and assumptions—or, in the case of referenda, a slate of facts themselves. They’re then expected to converse, and finally to vote, based on their appraisal of those elements. Opinions will vary, of course—that’s the whole point—but what shouldn’t vary, and indeed what can’t vary, is the core information itself. Without that, we lose our baseline of discussion. Not just our shared terms and definitions, but our sense of what the whole thing’s about in the first place.
JP: Let’s talk a little more about facts. It’s all a matter of perspective, and arguably what we think of as “facts” are really just dominant perspectives. The role of the newspaper, then (to bring this back to the point at hand) perhaps was to sort out all these competing perspectives and, for better or for worse, assert the dominant one; assert the “this is how it happened, and you can basically trust us on this, because we are professionals and we take our jobs seriously.”
But now, as that dissolves, maybe we’re reverting to a state where we’ve got all these competing perspectives, and no commonly accepted arbiter to sort them out. And so you can now pick and choose. And everybody believes what they want to believe; what is most convenient for them.
The question, then, is whether that’s bad or good for democracy. Obviously, you think that it’s bad. But I wonder if other people might disagree; if they might frame it another way. Internet enthusiasts, for example. “Look,” they might say. “The dominant perspective sucked. It excluded countless points of view. Now, everybody’s POV can be represented. Everybody is free to read the news that appeals to them; the news that they want to read. And the dominant sources can longer just pretend that these other perspectives don’t exist. Sure, it might get a bit cacophonous out there… but how, exactly, is that a bad thing for democracy?”