Monday Musing: Ghettos of the Mind, or What Amazon.com tells us about ourselves

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged my fascination with how the Internet allows us to glean some insights about ourselves.  In the past I’ve posted about the research of Edward Castranova, who has done studies of trade and norms in the worlds of massive multiplayer online role playing games. I was then taken by the work of the linguist who used “Hot or Not” to test if names added to whether we find someone attractive or not.

I was reminded of these uses of the net recently when reading an article about Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary Clinton.  The book, by all accounts, is a shrill screed about the deviousness and radicalism of Hillary Clinton, and takes as one of its main charges that she’s either a lesbian or infused with the culture of lesbianism (whatever that may mean). “To Arkansans, she walked like a lesbian, talked like a lesbian, and looked like a lesbian.”The book itself sounds uninteresting, and may be so over the top that prominent conservatives have distanced themselves from it.

The article mentioned that an amazon.com search reveals that those who purchased the book also purchased Unfit for Command and How to Talk to a Liberal, and books with titles like Treachery and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which, by the way managed to revolt The Weekly Standard. My first reaction to the list was to echo Wilde and think, “Wow, patriotism really is the virtue of the vicious.”

But my second reaction was curiosity.

About a year ago, I posted about an APSA [American Political Science Association] panel on blogs and mentioned the concern that Cass Sunstein raised in Republic.com.

“See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. . . . Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech?”

A dystopic future, resulting from personalization?  Maybe.

I did a similar search on Michael Oakeshott, to see what people who’d purchased Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, specifically, had also purchased. While there was a lot of Leo Strauss, there was also Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty, John Rawls, Sheldon Wolin, and Alasdair McInstyre (though I’m never clear where to put McIntyre on the political spectrum, save far away from me, that’s for sure).

Trying Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom produced an even wider spectrum of thinkers—from Marx, to Sen, to Heilbroner, to Keynes, Schumpeter, Bhagwati, Smith and Ricardo, before hitting Thomas Sowell and von Hayek on the right. (Incidentally, people who purchased The Communist Manifesto also purchased Freidman, Keynes, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Darwin and Hobbes.)

Now, while I didn’t think it, I did have to see whether it was possible that people on the Left—using as a proxy popular books on the Left rather than things like A General Theory of Exploitation and Class—read more broadly than those on the right, as long as the books weren’t a screed. So I decided to see what people who were reading Arundhati Roy’s Power Politics were reading. Unsurprisingly, lots of Chomsky, lots and lots of Chomsky.

I decided to try Michael Moore—I was one anti-war, lefty who really, really didn’t like Fahrenheit 9/11. Amazon returned a lot of Al Franken, as well as Molly Ivins, Craig Unger. My first reaction to this was, “well, but these aren’t screeds,” before I decided that my own ideological dispositions made me more tolerant of them. I still think they’re more reasonable than their equivalents on the other side, but I’ll also acknowledge that the fact that they validate and echo more of my beliefs may color my judgment.

One thing was for sure, below some threshold of intellectual “seriousness”, people weren’t exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion.  This was clear. In so much as they were exposing themselves to information from the other side, it was filtered.

Not too long ago, Eszter Hargittai posted the findings of some of her research on Crooked Timber. She and her collaborators were testing Sunstein’s hypothesis, at least as he laid it out in Republic.com.

“Our work has focused on addressing two questions. First, we are interested in seeing the extent to which liberal and conservative bloggers interlink. Second, we want to see what kind of changes we may be able to observe over time. Sunstein’s thesis suggests that we would see very little if any cross-linking among liberal and conservative blogs and the cross-linking would diminish over time. We go about answering these questions using multiple methodologies. We counted links and calculated some measures to see how insular the conversations are within groups of blogs. We also did a content analysis of some of the posts in our sample. We continue to work on this project so these are just preliminary findings.”

Their preliminary conclusion:

“Overall, it would be incorrect to conclude that liberal bloggers are ignoring conservative bloggers or vice versa. Certainly, liberal bloggers are more likely to address liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers are more likely to link to conservative bloggers. But people from both groups are certainly reading across the ideological divide to some extent.”

But whether liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers, or liberal writers and conservative writers for that matter, are ignoring each other is not the question.  It’s clear that they’re not. Chomsky’s read a lot of Kissinger, and Al Franken has read a lot of Rush Limbaugh, just as Nozick thoroughly read Rawls. Rather the issue is whether, as readers, we get our information about what the other side thinks filtered through those who we agree with and look up to. Arguing with someone does require that we have an open enough mind to change our positions in the face of goods reasons.  You don’t have to sign on to whole of the Habermasian project to recognize that.

The very sad thing is that discussions have become almost entirely strategic and less communicative, as it were.  That strategy may solidify one’s base and insulate it from being convinced of anything else. But these reading habits point to increasingly entrenched ideas and outlooks (though there are exceptions), and sadly to a world in which people argue less and less, in that real way where we can hope to change each other’s minds.

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