ReadMe First Conflicts Res publica Daimonion's Plea Troubleshooting EULA General Precautions: Daimonion’s Plea
Chapter three deals with the increasing fragmentation that results from the combined natural impulse of people to filter out content that makes them uncomfortable and the unlimited filtering possibilities offered by the Internet. What results, in an already heterogeneous society, Sunstein observes, is an increased polarization of various groups. Using both thought experiments (somewhat reminiscent of Plato’s "noble lie") and real data about groups that use the Internet to segregate themselves from the mainstream and perpetuate and radicalize their original views, the author gives a detailed picture of the dangers that accompany the enormous opportunities created by the explosion of communication possibilities in the Internet age. Central to this chapter are the concepts of group polarization and cybercascades. Noting that "[g]roup polarization is unquestionably occurring on the Internet" (69), he discusses some of the mechanisms that promote it. Obviously these mechanisms function not just on the Internet, but they are further facilitated by other features of online communication such as those identified by Laura Gurak in Cyberliteracy: speed, reach, anonymity, etc. (qtd. in Zappen 321). On the other hand, one should not focus exclusively on the negative side of group polarization: clearly, to a certain extent it is technically impossible for deliberation to occur with the participation of the entire society; enclave deliberation is thus unavoidable to a certain point. Furthermore, there are cases where group polarization "helped fuel many movements of great value" (76) such as the antislavery or the civil rights movements. But, Sunstein concludes, "for these improvements to occur, members must not insulate themselves from competing positions, or at least any such attempts at insulation must not be a prolonged affair" (79).

Related to the increased opportunities for polarization afforded by online communication is the notion of cybercascades, where true or false information spreads with up to now unimagined speed and reach. Here again, however, the author remarks: "the good news is that the Internet is easily enlisted to debunk false rumors as well as to start them" (91). On balance, the obvious implication of this discussion is that both negative and positive consequences accompany new technologies, and that, here, as in the past, the first step in avoiding the former while embracing the latter is a reasoned evaluation and acknowledgment of the issue. In Sunstein’s words: "for purposes of obtaining understanding, few things are more important than to separate the question of whether there is a problem from the question whether anything should be done about it" (96).

Filtering of information is not limited to fringe groups that use it as a way to motivate their members to action. As chapter four shows, this tendency also affects the mainstream: in this case it manifests itself mostly in the impulse to treat information as just another kind of consumer goods, rather than a public "solidarity good" (101) and it results in a loss of "common identity" and in the inability to act or react properly to challenges that involve the public sphere such as national defense or public policy.

Chapter four, then, widens the scope of the discussion on filtering by focusing on its effects on the society at large. In chapter five the expansion is rather vertical: the author now moves down to the level of the individual, evaluating how filtering tendencies and opportunities affect us in our dual role as consumers and citizens. However, even though he acknowledges the significance these filtering inclinations have for individuals (see the section titled “Unhappy Sovereigns: The Consumption Treadmill”), the main drive of the argument is still to point out what larger societal results follow from our individual behaviors and choices. The main concern here is that we tend to wrongly identify freedom with respect for consumption choices, ignoring that a significant dimension of freedom has to do with "the free formation of desires and beliefs" (121). Clearly, this condition, recalling Habermas’s ideal speech situation, does not readily occur: "[m]ost preferences and beliefs do not preexist social institutions" (121-2). This is however precisely what makes it essential for us to recognize the artificiality of our preferences and choices and to question any technological, societal or political development that promises to further restrict our preference-shaping horizon. One way to accomplish that, Sunstein rightfully believes, is to acknowledge that "citizens in a democratic system . . . might want to make choices that diverge from those they make in their capacity as private consumers" (127).