Opting for Optimism – Twitter Class Reading Reflection #2

Opting for Optimism – Twitter Class Reading Reflection #2

The final section of Cass R. Sunstein‘s book Infotopia is titled “Opting for Optimism.”  This section addresses both optimistic and pessimistics views of decisions being made from the massive amounts of information that can be found online.  The pessimistic view “emphasizes mob psychology, groupthink, and the risk that people will lead one another astray.”  The optimistic view, on the other hand, “stresses the widely dispersed nature of information and possibility that aggregations of information will prove uncannily accurate.”  While both sides are certainly extreme, I definitely fall in the optimistic camp.

The pessimistic view is very common.   David Beer and Roger Burrows discuss these concerns in their 2007 paper “Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0: Some Initial Considerations.”  Beer and Burrows point out sites like Rate My Professors have the potential to be filled with hateful reviews and false information.  While it is true sites like Rate My Professors are providing bad information to people, there are many great review sites like Yelp that are helping people make more informed decisions.  I personally don’t believe sites like Rate My Professor will be able to maintain traction in the long run.  As we adapt to our new web culture, we will learn how to find better information than before.

My optimism is rooted in my confidence in mankind’s ability to adapt to change.  We have gone through major shifts in how we communicate and deal with information in the past – and we are better for it.  The online revolution is just another instance of a shift in economics, communication, and in the end, power.  Hierarchical methods of communication have dominated for a long time – but that is changing due to the new ability to aggregate knowledge from people worldwide.  We live in a time when Twitter breaks news before CNN.   Moreover, services like Twitter can be used to help fuel massive protests in Iran.  While the information may not have been perfect, it is amazing to see how people were able to unite in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years ago.

My question to those that are pessimistic about the implications of the internet is this: Was information really better before than it is now?  Were better decisions really made?

I really don’t think they were.

Before the internet became mainstream, it was far easier to hide in your own little world and avoid ideas that made you think twice about your beliefs.  The main source of information was your television, you newspaper, and word of mouth.  It is easy to form a small bubble around your world in this scenario.  These cocoons are far harder to create now, and the upcoming generation has grown up with a forum to hear all kinds of thoughts and opinions.

So will the internet solve all of our information and decision making problems?  Not a chance.  Is it going to make things better than before?  Certainly.

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