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Our World Digitized -- The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (MIT Communications Forum)

04/10/2008 5:00 PM Bartos theater
Yochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard; Cass Sunstein, Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, Law School and Department of Political Science, University of Chicago; Henry Jenkins, Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California;

Description: In conversation with Henry Jenkins, these speakers don't so much square off as share their hopes and fears for the emergence of online democracy.

The first order of business, instructs Jenkins, is taking stock of the current "communication space" to assess whether current practices encourage the growth of digital democracy. Cass Sunstein gives the Internet a C", for its "babble and excellencebrilliant insight and cruelty, that are not from the standpoint of self"governmentwhat we deserve." Yochai Benkler, describing the "good public sphere," focuses less on sheer freedom of expression, and more on how people participate in "production of an agenda," and how they are enabled to "investigate, pursue, differ, err, correct and discuss."

Sunstein bemoans the common opinion in the "geek world" that if you're sovereign over your own options, you can "declare victory and go home." In Sunstein's version of a well"functioning system of communication, "you don't construct a daily me, your communications cocoon, your little information chamber," but embrace "unanticipated exposure and shared experience." Such moments energize people, shifting them from passivity to active citizenship, declares Sunstein.

Benkler sees the Internet as couched in the larger framework of power and elites, where government or commercially directed mass media typically produce our common experiences. But now, with the Web, "instead of having a few hundred or a few thousand people with a genuine ability to set the agenda, we instead have two to three million people who believe they can affect the agenda without kidding themselves too badly. That seems like a larger population that can push on power." This is a "significant change in citizenship from the idea of sitting in front of the TV." He finds particularly attractive organizations like Netroots, which prod traditional political parties in certain directions.

But there's a possibility for fragmentation, and even dangerous polarization, Sunstein worries, with online communities clustering around similar interests and erecting bulwarks against contrary thinking. "The notion that freedom of choice, the ability to self"select and produce our own information content is a full cure for what ails us, runs into obstacles," he says. Benkler, though, believes the tendency to "tell each other how great and right we are and how wrong they are" is a plausible description "of how we've always been." He is happily observing a new generation of children grow up deeply imbedded in new technologies that help them develop an "attitude of seeking and being able to find."

Sunstein summons his muse, Jane Jacobs, to describe his ideal: an Internet metropolis that mirrors the best an American city offers. "Walking along some street, you see a person, interaction, building that stuns youIf you really look, the fertility and surprise of that will alter what you're interested in, what you care about, your aesthetic and even political sense." Sunstein dreams of a digital world designed for serendipity, as well as norms of interaction, (such as on Wikipedia) that promote collaboration, self"correction and the prevention of lies and cruelty.

About the Speaker(s): Before coming to Harvard, Yochai Benkler was Joseph M. Field '55 Professor of Law at Yale. His expertise is in information law and policy in the digital environment, communications law, and intellectual property.

Benkler's books include The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press 2006). Selected articles include Coase's Penguins, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, and Freedom in the Commons, Towards a Political Economy of Information, 52 Duke L.J. 1245 (2003).

Benkler has an LL.B. from Tel"Aviv University and a J.D. from Harvard University. Before teaching, Benkler clerked for the Honorable Stephen Breyer, U.S. Supreme Court. From 2001"03, he was a Professor of Law, New York University School of Law and served as Director, Engelberg Center for Innovation Law and Policy and Director, Information Law Institute. In 2002"03, he served as Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and from 2001"02, he was a Visiting Professor of Law, Yale Law School.

Cass Sunstein is the author of many articles and books including, most recently, Republic.com 2.0 (2007) and Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (2006). After graduating from Harvard Law School, he clerked for Justice Benjamin Kaplan of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S Supreme Court.

Before joining the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School, he worked as an attorney"advisor in the Office of the Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice. Sunstein has testified before congressional committees on many subjects, and he has been involved in constitution"making and law reform activities in a number of nations, including Ukraine, Poland, China, South Africa, and Russia.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sunstein has been Samuel Rubin Visiting Professor of Law at Columbia, visiting professor of law at Harvard, vice"chair of the ABA Committee on Separation of Powers and Governmental Organizations, and chair of the Administrative Law Section of the Association of American Law Schools, among other memberships. Sunstein will join the faculty of Harvard Law School in the fall.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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December 14, 2011 15:44
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