Policies and Proposals

THERE IS a large difference between consumers and citizens, and a well-functioning democratic order would be compromised by a fragmented system of communications. Having urged these points, I do not intend to offer any kind of blueprint for the future; this is not a policy manual. Recall too that some problems lack solutions. But surely things can be made better rather than worse. In thinking about what might be done by either private or public institutions, it is important to have some sense of the problems that we aim to address, and of some possible ways of addressing them.

If the discussion thus far is correct, there are three fundamental concerns from the democratic point of view. These include:

the need for attention to substantive questions of policy and principle, combined with a range of positions on such questions;

the value of exposure to materials, topics, and positions that people would not have chosen in advance, or at least enough exposure to produce a degree of understanding and curiosity; and

the importance of a range of common experiences.

Of course it would be ideal if citizens were demanding, and private providers were creating, a range of initiatives designed




to alleviate the underlying concerns. To some extent, they are; exceedingly promising experiments have been emerging in just this vein. Our emphasis should be on purely private solutions through a better understanding of what is en tailed by the notion of citizenship. The Internet and other communications technologies create extraordinary and ever-growing opportunities for exposure to diverse points of view, and indeed increased opportunities for shared experiences and substantive discussions of both policy and principle. It is certainly possible that private choices will lead to far more, not less, in the way of exposure to new topics and viewpoints, and also to more, not less, in the way of shared experiences. But to the extent that they fail to do so, it is worthwhile to consider how self-conscious efforts by private institutions, and to some extent public ones as well, might pick up the slack.

Any ideas about how to handle the situation require an understanding of how people are likely to react to topics and points of view that they have not chosen. If people cannot develop an interest in topics that they would not have chosen, then exposure to those topics is unlikely to be worthwhile. If people will never listen to points of view with which they disagree, there would be little point in exposing them to those points of view. If people would never learn from exposure to un chosen views and topics, we might as well build on the emerging capacity of companies to discern and predict tastes and just allow people to see, hear, and get what they already like. Recall collaborative filtering and technology'S amazing ability to predict what you'll like-simply by combining information about what you've chosen with information about what people who have chosen what you chose have also chosen .

But it seems far more realistic to say that many people-it would be silly to say exactly how many, but surely millionsare prepared to listen to points of view that they have not