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[2b2k] Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia

I’ve put Chapter 1 aside for two whole days after several weeks of compulsive daily writing and unwriting (usually in the other order). In the meantime I read Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia. I had skimmed it a couple of years ago, but this time I went through it more slowly because his caveats about group deliberation are important.

Infotopia follows up on his 2001 Republic.com, which famously worries about the formation of online “echo chambers” on the Net that causes people to become more extreme and less open in their views. Infotopia asks whether and how groups of people can learn and make good decisions. While Sunstein professes to be optimistic, the book reads pretty much like a catalog of how groups make themselves stupider. Worse, the book is evidence-based. There are a lot of studies that support him.

So, it’s directly relevant to the book I’m writing. I will undoubtedly draw upon it for both its warnings and its advice. The advice in fact seems to be to recognize what groups are good at and what they’re not, and to make sure diversity is encouraged and rewarded. (I am oversimplifying, of course.) No argument from me on those points!

I found the book useful for a couple of other reasons, too.

First, overall the book warns that deliberation is not always the best way to get to truth. Sunstein knows that he’s here arguing against deeply held Enlightenment beliefs and against some of the notions that founded this country.

Second, underneath that is a notion of knowledge that I think is being challenged; it’s the task of my book to try to figure out what that challenge actually is and what it does to our idea/ideal of knowledge. I hereby freely admit that I don’t have a good sense of what I’m driving at. But, I think the difference is between thinking (a) there is a realm of fixed and true knowledge (even if deliberation is not always the best tool for uncovering it); and (b) knowledge is always in contention and is never settled.

Now, let me add the qualifiers to that last point, because they are so broad that they may well obviate the point entirely. There is clearly a realm of facts about which one can be simply right or wrong. If that’s all we me mean by knowledge, then (a) is correct. But, if so, then knowledge isn’t nearly as elevated as we’ve thought it is. It’s just facts. As we go up a level from facts (and facts about facts may still be facts, so this is a confusing way of putting it), issues are more contentious and more important. I don’t know if we want to call that contentious realm “knowledge” in any sense, nor do I care very much. The picture of the world is different no matter what you call it: Either (a) the contention is an inferior, preparatory state that has value because knowledge emerges it, or (b) the contention is the normal, natural and inevitable condition of us humans, out of which some facty knowledge occasionally precipitates and becomes commoditized.

Or, in the terms that I have using when I think about this for myself, knowledge squeezes differences out, while networked knowledge works by including differences.

By the way, Sunstein also concludes that group deliberation works best if it includes differences. But his idea of working best is that it drives out differences and settles the issue. I am suggesting that knowledge includes differences. I’m just not sure that I’m right, that it’s an interesting point, or that it actually means anything at all.


I had the whole book plotted out carefully, but the first chapter changed things. So, I’m trying to figure out what goes in the next chapter. I think I have a rough idea now. I think I have to explain what it means to say that knowledge is becoming a property of networks, which means showing how traditional knowledge arises from the printed medium. Then I think I have to talk about what this does to experts and expertise. Which actually is fairly close to my original outline. Well what do you know!

I’m working on figuring out how to open the chapter. I have an idea but I have to review some notes first…

11 Responses to “[2b2k] Cass Sunstein’s Infotopia”

  1. David, I’m glad you saw my video!

    One of the basic ideas is that there are “divisions of everything”. We see them in dead-end discussions like “free will vs. fate”. There are issues like that where both perspectives are relevant and would you really want to get rid of one of them? But underlying many endless debates, under layers of language and framing, are often just a bias one way or the other. Instead, I just note the relationship between the two perspectives and try to understand it. “Free will vs. Fate” is just one representation of the distinction between “opposites coexist” and “all is the same”. (Other representations are: “outside vs. inside” – if there’s an outside, then there’s also an inside; but once your sucked inside, there is no outside, it just goes on forever; “theory vs. practice” – you can be distinct from a system in theory, or one with it in practice; “same vs. different” – things have to be different in order to be the same, but if they are different, then they are just different.) The two perspectives are relevant in matters of “existence” because there you need both, to be able to raise a question: (maybe it exists or maybe it doesn’t?) and offer an answer: (if it exists, then it exists; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t).

    Knowledge is the issue that is handled by the division of everything into four perspectives: Whether (things in themselves), What (sensory image), How (blueprint – utilitarian – creation), Why (total information). This comes up with many many philosophers, for example, Aristotle’s four causes (known also in China), or Plato’s wisdom (why) , true opinion (how), false opinion (what). And this structure has two representations: Idealists think in terms of the observer, the questions Why? How? What? Whether? and Materialists think in terms of the observed, the answers Why, How, What, Whether. The Idealists discount Whether (because then the observer is null, when things are of themselves, like a cup hidden in a cupboard with no observer), and the Materialists discount Why (when the thing is null, just a figment of the imagination, and all of the information is in the mind of the observer). So they have endless arguments, each postulating three levels (out of four levels) that don’t match up.

    I’m just wondering if these sets of perspectives are what you mean by “differences”. And if your goal is to make sure you have a complete set of perspectives for the issue at hand. That was my goal with the divisions of everything.

  2. Andrius – Most mandalic representations of consciousness include a sacred center and four quadrants or vertices.

    The Universe can be known through the vertices of thinking, sensing, imagining, or intuiting. Carl Jung called these four functions of consciousness: thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuiting. I would replace feeling with imagining and move feeling to the sacred center. As consciousness evolves, creating becomes the fifth and most holistic mode of knowing.

    These four means of apprehending the Universe can be arranged as the four points of a cross or as the four cardinal points on a compass.

    The horizontal axis opposes thinking(right) and sensation(left), while the vertical axis opposes imagination(below) and intuition (above).

    The sacred center is the point of creation. Creation occurs when all four modes of apprehension interact.

    The five primary elements would be arranged as follows: Sensation=Earth, Thinking=Metal, Imagination=Water, Intuition=Air, Creative Center=Fire.

    Since the Enlightenment, knowing has increasingly been relegated to the quadrant of thinking( Descartes announces that I think, therefore, I am) while other modes of apprehension have been forgotten, discredited, or extinguished.

    It seems as if your model of knowing depends heavily upon thinking and seems to navigate only the horizontal axis. You too seem to discredit the imagination as a realm of “figments”. And what about the three aspects of knowledge: the known, the unknown, and the unknowable.

  3. David, I think even your “(a)” is problematic, since “facts” are not always facts. I would suggest you have a look at Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts ( 2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. And, it may be useful to you to download the 24-part series of podcasts of the CBC Ideas program, “How to think about science.

    Although I may be projecting here (since I’ve recently written about this myself), it sounds to me as if you’re dancing around the arguments of positivism vs. constructivism, and social construction of knowledge.

    (I’m not sure if this helps any, but good luck.)

  4. Mark, I am totally dancing around those arguments. I am an admirer of Latour’s writing, but I want to avoid the misinterpretation we all want to make that takes us down the endless alley of whether George Washington was the first president. I want to be able to bracket that argument about facts and be able to say “Yes, it’s a fact that GW was the first prez of the US” _in some sense of fact_ so that we can talk about changes up the stack a bit.

    I may be unsuccessful at that. And it will likely mean that people deep into this area will find what I’m writing naive and superficial, to which I can only say: I agree.

  5. David,
    Some morning thoughts in freezing January:

    I may be old dated or confused, but – why, in the first place, we even think of the reduction of knowledge to facts. The mere question in:
    “There is clearly a realm of facts about which one can be simply right or wrong. If that’s all we me mean by knowledge …”
    invokes a resistance in me. Reductionist style applied to the realm of knowledge & wisdom?

    If we belive that knowledge has components answering the “how” and “why” needs – and I belive it has – is seems to be cristal clear that facts fall into lower layer – into the floor of information. Maybe – they stick out of the floor of information, maybe – but I do not see how mere facts could ever be elevated to the floor of knowledge ???

    BTW, group deliberations by Sunstein – I must read these two books, seem interesting.

  6. […] overload “Too Big To Know” (2b2k). The latest installment is about Weinberger’s deliberations on the nature of knowledge, something I’ve mused about in the past year but never got very far with: knowledge squeezes […]

  7. I’ll stick to a less philosophical level than Mark’s post, but I agree that this issue is a big deal for science – specifically, I wonder if public perceptions of the practice of science are being conflated problematically with the pervasive “wisdom of crowds” concept. I blogged about it at Scienceblogs, and got an enlightening discussion.

  8. So this new volume promises to do for epistemology what “Everything is Miscellaneous” did for taxonomy? Hopefully you’ll balance any slight nod to Bruno Latour with a hat tip to Samuel Beckett. “Aramis” and “Godot” have a lot in common, I think.

  9. Interesting quote of Diderot from 1755 in this post by Stowe Boyd:
    http://www.stoweboyd.com/message/2010/01/attention-economics-ithe-wrong-question.html
    (scroll down until you see Diderot picture)

  10. Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, I offer this philosophy:

    Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

    “So many Gods, so many creeds,
    So many paths that wind and wind,
    While just the art of being kind,
    Is all the sad world needs”

  11. I’m just finishing Infotopia. Great book. It shed some light on thought of Friedrich Hayek great writing:
    http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html

    I guess I now better understand the main challange of your 2B2K book…

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