This is a spin-off of the previous blog post about a workshop I attended but it deserves its own blog post.
At the workshop, I was introduced to the notion that Benkler and Sunstein have had a conversation with each other through their books; Sunstein (Repubic.com, 2002) --> Benkler (The wealth of networks, 2007) --> Sunstein (Republic.com 2.0, 2009).
Sunstein is worried about social media leading to personalization and fragmentation of the public sphere. Benkler sees the emergence of large- and small-scale public networks as an enabler of more flexible ways of consuming information and forming social relationships.
The Sunstein/Benkler disagreement reminds me of an interesting disagreement between anthropologists Redfield (1930) and Lewis (1951), who characterized the same Mexican village (Tepoztlán) as a "happy community/Gemeinschaft" (Redfield) and an "unhappy society/Gesellschaft" (Lewis):
"The impression given by Redfield's study of Tepoztlán is that of a relatively homogenous, isolated, smoothly functioning and well-integrated society made up of a content and well adjusted people. [...] Our findings, on the other hand, would emphasize the underlaying individualism of Tepoztecan institutions and character, the lack of cooperation, the tensions between villages within the municipio, the schisms within the village, and the pervading quality of fear, envy and distrust." (Lewis 1951, pp.429).
Redfield's answer is very interesting. He acknowledges that the object of their studies could not have changed radically in the 17 intervening years between the two studies. He concludes that both descriptions are true at the same time:
“There are hidden questions behind the two books that have been written about Tepoztlán. The hidden question behind my book is, ‘What do these people enjoy?’ The hidden question behind Dr. Lewis’ book is, ‘What do these people suffer from?’ “ (Redfield 1955, p.136).
I learned about about the Refield/Lewis "conversation" from Asplund's (1991) short, excellent and to-the-point (Swedish-only) book "Essay about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft" and I have written about this and other dichotomies and "puzzle pictures" in an unpublished manuscript about community.
The connection is of course that the hidden question behind Sunstein's work is, "in what ways can the Internet be construed as a threat to the public sphere?". The hidden question behind Bennkler's work is, "in what ways can the Internet be construed as a promise to the public sphere?".