Richard G. Epstein

 

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OP-ED PIECE

THE FRAGMENTED

PUBLIC SQUARE

by

Harold Price

Op-Ed Page Editor

Maybe it's because I'm old-fashioned or maybe it's because I work for the Sentinel-Observer, but I still like the feel of a good morning newspaper in my hands as I drink my morning coffee. I think my colleagues and I do a hell of a good job bringing you the news that you can use every morning.

I know that the traditional newspaper has seen better days. According to information gathered anonymously from communications over the Global Landscape, 56% of all newspaper readers are now reading personalized newspapers, newspapers that are composed by softbots (autonomous, intelligent agents) using resources that are available over the Global Landscape. A personalized newspaper is constructed specifically for a given person based upon information that the person provides to the softbot. The softbot composes a newspaper specifically for that person by collecting information that is available on the Global Landscape.

I had the misfortune last Saturday night of having been invited to a dinner party in which every single party member was a reader of personalized newspapers. Except for my wife and myself, no one at that dinner party reads a traditional newspaper. They all read softbot-generated newspapers that are tailor-made for them.

Consequently, soon after the dinner party began, the host, the hostess and the guests lapsed into a profound silence. We found no common ground upon which to build a conversation.

For example, Ralph (I am using fictitious names) is into sports. Consequently, he uses a personalized newspaper publishing softbot that generates a sports newspaper for him every morning. He receives no information about politics, government, science and a host of other important topics.

The same was true for Susan (whose personalized newspaper focuses on health and fitness), George (whose personalized newspaper focuses on business and finance), Harry (whose personalized newspaper focuses on sports and entertainment), Tom, Bill and Beatrice (whose personalized newspapers focus on specialized aspects of technology) and Martha (whose personalized newspaper focuses on children, house and home).

Because of these diverging interests we shared no common vocabulary, no common shared memories, no common conceptual framework upon which to spin our stories.

For example, I attempted to tell a joke about Senator Clayton's attempt to tax the virtual economy. No one laughed. George was the only one who even knew what the virtual economy was. So, before I could tell my joke I had to provide a background information on the nature of the virtual economy, on Richard Wallings and virtual money and on Senator Clayton's Senate hearings. This took nearly twenty minutes, by which time nearly everyone had lost all interest in hearing my joke.

There is hardly anything more frustrating than trying to tell a story to twenty people, only to have them drift off into little cliques right in the middle of your telling of it. One has little recourse but to plunge ahead, but one ends up telling one's tale not to twenty people, but to the lone woman sitting immediately to your right, who is inevitably a sleepy-eyed stranger who is listening to you only partially, since she is fearful that she might be missing out on some really juicy gossip at the other end of the table. She can hardly wait until your idiot's tale is told so that she can turn her back on you without seeming overly rude. I cannot imagine anything closer to watching one's life slipping away than this.

Nonetheless, I tried to recapture everyone's attention, but this time Ralph, Susan and Harry wanted an explanation on the value-added tax. By the time I finished explaining the value-added tax, the hostess announced that dinner was ready, so we retired to the dining room, with my joke untold.

It is truly frightening the way that the Global Landscape has created dozens of specialized communities with their own specialized vocabularies, beliefs and customs. As we sat around the dining room table, Tom, who is into technology, gave several long dissertations on new computer memory technologies and the latest developments in artificial intelligence. Yet, his technical jargon was foreign to almost everyone at the table, and I doubt that many people benefited from what Tom had to say.

I wonder how we can maintain a democracy in this country if people do not possess a shared vocabulary of civic concepts, principles and values. It seems to me that all citizens need to be familiar with the basic workings of government in order to make intelligent choices when they vote. But, the public square that existed just fifty years ago is dissolving into tens of thousands of highly specialized communities that do not communicate with one another. In the political sphere we have the frightening proliferation of extremists groups who have their own private vocabularies and ideologies. These groups have become extremely isolated. They do not receive the feedback that they need nor are they under appropriate scrutiny.

The Global Landscape has encouraged the fragmentation of the public square and it has greatly contributed to the deterioration of the quality of governance in this country. I am not sure what the solution is. So, I pose the following question for the readers of the Sentinel-Observer: How can we recreate the public square that is so important for the proper functioning of a republican democracy? Please submit your suggestions to

READER'S FORUM
SILICON VALLEY SENTINEL-OBSERVER
GLOBAL LANDSCAPE BOX RTZ-9812
VIRTUAL CALIFORNIA 89-89345

We will publish the best suggestions on this page in next Sunday's Sentinel-Observer.

 

1997, 1999 Richard Gary Epstein

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