This afternoon, sitting on the small deck of Gecko, surrounded by the warm and humid air, hidden in the mild noise, I got myself ready for the long-delayed conversation. Three law professors, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, and Yochai Benkler, are together to talk about blogs...through their writings. :)
Here is my record of this conversation. Lessig is L, Sunstein is S, Benkler is B and me is me.
S: Blogs are an unlikely venue for Habermasian public sphere because of fragmentation and polarization.
L: Whether blogs democratize should be examined within the constraint of their codes / architecture.
S: Alright. The codes for blogs are like-minded groups that are isolated from each other.
B: No. It is not true. The architecture of blogs is the power law distribution in general and the long tail distribution within like-minded groups.
Me: What is the power law distribution?
B: You guys should read Science and Nature. It means that most people still visit a few superstar websites. So fragmentation is not a problem.
Me: Even though people go to the same websites such as google.com, they could selectively choose information that echo their opinions. At the level of individual exposure, it is still fragmented.
S: I agree.
Me: But selective exposure itself has to be examined rather than being assumed. The first step of assuming preference for the like-mind might be wrong.
B: I agree. You have to provide empirical data.
Me: How does the long tail distribution help to prevent polarization?
B: It means no superstars can totally dominate a small world. Many low end sites are still connected to each other if you look at a smaller scale cluster.
Me: OK. So it prevents domination or centralization in small clusters. But how does it prevent fragmentation and polarization?
B: Well, it is actually that there is no fragmentation so there is no polarization.
L: The distributions you talked about could be changed, do you know? The codes that determine the dynamics are open to changes.
B: Oh yes. That is why we should pay close attention to how policy regulates the codes.
L: Yes, the constraints of law take advantage of codes to make cyberspace more regulatable. The government can interfere with the formation of the two distributions you mentioned.
B: But so far the government has a harder time to control cyberspace than mass media.
L: Are you sure? The government enjoys controls that they cannot have before. For example, it can even censor private communication.
Me: Probably we should not only use mass media as the benchmark. Other communication modes such as interpersonal comm. should be used as reference point, too.
I am totally excited by this upcoming project that NUS is organizing. During the brainstorm meeting, I threw my brain into the storm and proposed a migrant worker study that tries to apply ICTs into supporting the long-distance relationship between the workers and their rural families. The more I think about it, the more I feel that my current research paradigm is challenged.
1. The inter-disciplinary nature of this project: Previously my experience of multiple disciplines is limited to my own exposure to theories and research from different disciplines. But the purpose of the studies is the same -- to answer a question or to test a hypothesis. This project includes people from the computing school, the design school, and the social sciences. The purpose of this project is not just about research. It puts more emphasis on applications.
2. The problem-solving orientation of this project: I have never done a research that really solves a problem or implements a solution. The factors I will consider are quite different here. I become less concerned about the cleanness of my design (e.g., internal validity) than the success of solutions. Dr. Hornick (Annenberg, UPenn) once said that the most sucessful campaign might be the most messy campaign that mobilizes all possilbe social forces.
3. Poor people still have social needs: Probably becasue of my acceptance of Maslow's hierachy of needs, I did not realize that I put physiological needs ahead of any other needs and assumed that without satisfying the physicological needs, no other needs should be considered. This is not true. Social needs such as love and belonging do not come after physicological needs . They exist along with the physiological needs. Therefore, we should use technolgoy to address these needs.
A final note: there is no useless reading. I do not know why I started reading books about Chinese rural communities during summer. I simply felt interested. Now the project comes. Now I see the value of reading all items from Baidu news search with the key word "peasants" for three months.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.