February 7, 2003

A Rolling Snowball Gathers Too Much Moss

A colleague of mine sent me the URL for this fascinating page that uses "snowball sampling" to graphically represent the connections between the "also bought" lists that Amazon.com generates. (When you buy a book on Amazon, you can see that customers who bought that book also commonly bought several other titles.)

It's a beautiful, elegant demonstration of a larger pattern that worries me enormously, and that the collective output of American Blogistan is illustrating to an alarming degree.

In a virtual community that I have participated in for years, I can be counted on to wail and whine about the close-mindedness of people on the left--I'd whine about people on the right, too, but there aren't very many of them in the community in question. What aggravates me isn't so much the actual positions that people take, which I happen to agree with in many cases, but the fact that they come to the table with enormous inflexibility, smugness and preternatural hostility to any view that does not closely replicate their own fixed position.

There is never any sense that there is a need to think about how an issue looks to someone else who isn't already a member of the club and, who knows the secret handshake. There's no sense of an obligation to persuade anyone: an argument is just a license to harangue and browbeat. Idee Fixes R Us.

That's what I think that snowball sample shows via Amazon. I think it's what a lot of online discourse about politics shows, too. Few people seem to feel a need to explore ideas, try on a new theory or premise, and work towards a kind of intellectual transparency, where one's basic axioms and understandings are always visible and always open to the possibility of change.

The problem is that when you give up on the obligation to persuade and an openness to the possibility of being persuaded, when you turn your back on intellectual exploration and an abiding interest in how other people see things and why they do, you're effectively turning your back on democracy as anything but a polite way to manage intractable conflicts. You're accepting at that point that democracy is just another word for "kill or be killed", that in any conflict, you're either going to win or lose, and that winning involves making the other guy do things your way whether he likes it or not.

You don't have to be infinitely open to all comers and infinitely willing to concede all principles. Sometimes you do have to stick to your guns and trust in the rightness of your views. But you really do need to "jump clusters" now and again, to always seek and desire intellectual and political pluralism. Staying on your snowball is a sure recipe for frozen rigidity.