Hayek, Habermas, and the Blogosphere

6 February 2008 at 11:26 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Cass Sunstein asks if the blogosphere is more like Hayek’s spontaneous market order or Habermas’s noisy “bourgeois public sphere,” concluding that it isn’t quite either:

The rise of the blogosphere raises important questions about the elicitation and aggregation of information, and about democracy itself. Do blogs allow people to check information and correct errors? Can we understand the blogosphere as operating as a kind of marketplace for information along Hayekian terms? Or is it a vast public meeting of the kind that Jurgen Habermas describes? In this article, I argue that the blogosphere cannot be understood as a Hayekian means for gathering dispersed knowledge because it lacks any equivalent of the price system. I also argue that forces of polarization characterize the blogosphere as they do other social interactions, making it an unlikely venue for Habermasian deliberation, and perhaps leading to the creation of information cocoons. I conclude by briefly canvassing partial responses to the problem of polarization.

The paper is in the January 2008 issue of Public Choice, a special issue edited by Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell on the social and political aspects of blogging. (Thanks to Greg Ransom for the link.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Austrian Economics, New Institutional Economics.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Benjamin  |  7 February 2008 at 9:05 pm

    This is a subject I have thought a lot about recently, so it is fortuitous that one of my favority blogs should have a post about it. I believe that Hayekian terms are perfectly suited to describing the information aggregation of the internet, especially considering the explosion of blogging. Rather than a price system to aggregate information, the internet uses network connections to measure the reliability and quality of the information on the internet. Blog rolls by notable academics like Greg Mankiw, Brad Delong, and Tyler Cowen are simply explicit networks. Similarly, Google’s search algorithm utilizes the number of links connecting to and from any given website to help determine its “PageRank.” This effect creates a cyber-hierarchy of higher and lower quality information, as poor information sources should theoretically be linked to fewer third parties. Over time, this will lead to low quality information isolated and high quality content providers tightly networked. This measurement of quality replaces the price system in information markets and therefore Sunstein’s first argument is invalid. As for the second argument, the formation of “information cocoons” as he calls them seems unlikely to me. When the marginal access costs of consuming high-quality and low quality information are the same, why would anyone choose the latter? Cognitive biases might lead people to selectively choose which information they consume repeatedly resulting in asymettries, but doesn’t it seem that the internet would reduce asymmetries?

  • 2. TomGrey  |  8 February 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks, Benjamin — you made my point far better than I would.

    Remember, too, that the “price” of internet information is mostly … time.
    There are also Webby awards, and other ‘prizes’, as well as various lists. The correction of factual errors seems quite swift, if there is a will to see the error corrected.

    I do feel biased that the Instapundit / right is faster and more interested in corrrecting actual errors, than the Daily Kos / left, so there might well be a cocoon of info among liberals.

    The best reporting in Iraq comes from a pro-war Democrat, Michael Totten, who finds that leftist folk do NOT read nor link to him.

    Back to the price system and info — when info is copied the wealth of the world goes up. The need for a price system is to allocate resources which are exclusive, like land, cars, material stuff.

    Digital info is not like that, despite the business models dependent on using gov’t force to maintain Intellectual Monopolies and huge production profits from selling, rather than sharing, info.

    The Value of the info in the blogosphere is not merely facts, tho — it is also community. And most communities like some cocoon aspects of Us, who are different (and better!) than Them.

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