April 16, 2008
Our World Digitized: Henry Jenkins, Yochai Benkler, and Cass Sunstein

As we've mentioned a few times on the blog lately, the Program in Comparative Media Studies featured the latest version of the MIT Communications Forum last week, an event particularly of potential interest to Consortium readers.

C3 Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins moderated a conversation between University of Chicago law and political science professor Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler of Harvard University's Berkman Center, in an event called "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly."

Sustein is the author of Republic.com 2.0 and Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, while Benkler wrote The Wealth of Networks.

According to the abstract:

Much discussion of our impending digital future is insular and without nuance.  Skeptics talk mainly among themselves, while utopians and optimists also keep company mainly within their own tribal cultures.  Today's forum challenges this unhelpful division, staging a conversation between two of our country's most thoughtful and influential writers on the promise and the perils of the Internet Age.

The audiocast of the event is already available here, and video will be available soon.

John Eckman, who I wrote about in the past, provides some liveblogging notes from the event here, and CMS graduate student Whitney Trettien writes about some of her objections to Sunstein's views here. Trettien writes:

My CMS colleague Lana asked a smart question how ostensibly frivolous things like art or entertainment fit into Sunstein's or Benkler's models, both soaked in the dry rhetoric of law, policy and economics. Lana's question (and Henry Jenkins' subsequent addition) pointed out that spaces of play may actually be more diverse than spaces for "serious" issues. For instance, a forum for a popular television show exposes fans to others from all different political and social perspectives, and therefore (ironically) might result in more meaningful exchange than a site like DailyKos, which just begs for extremism. If this is true, the whole conversation needs to be redirected, or at least expanded, to include notions besides "freedom" and "democracy," the dry and burdened terms of political philosophy. Again, if we're going to challenge Enlightenment notions, we have to stop using them as our measuring stick for democratic success.

Also, see this post on the event from Keith Hopper. Hopper writes:

While I agree with Sunstein's desire for diversity and serendipity and with Benkler's excitement over individual feelings of empowerment, I was disappointed that neither questioned the tired and quaint notion of the web being nothing more than a series of echo chambers. I wonder if either looks outside their inboxes to see what's really going on. Here is where Jenkins should have jumped in and schooled them on growing participation across diverse online communities, the wildly serendipitous (if not downright chaotic) information exchange found on Twitter, and individual interest (and subsequent sharing) expanding outward across every category of long tail media and knowledge

The final Communications Forum of the spring will feature, among others, Ian V. Rowe from Consortium partner company MTV Networks, for a panel on "Youth and Civic Engagement."

And for more on the good, the bad, and the ugly in digital culture, see my end-of-the-year article with Peppercom's Steve Cody in The Christian Science Monitor. The similar use of "good, bad, and ugly" was merely coincidental, but I thought it was a great example of serendipity.