Just finished David Mamet’s A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays and one essay Poll Finds started me thinking about problems with democracy and choice (a hopeless task!).

We make awful choices as collectives – look at the newspapers we choose, the television we watch, the music we buy, the fast-food chains we make rich. But I have faith that we’re better than that. So why do we allow ourselves to be sold it? I’m convinced that part of the answer is the difference between what we’d really like and what we’re willing to put up with; Another part is the increasing size of markets; and partly it’s a culture of hype and fear that has chosen to put quantity over quality at ever turn (or am i starting to sound like a hysterical lefty?). But here’s another point, from Mamet, a bizarrely conservative liberal…

The viscious aspect of the poll is that it submerges the individual’s responsibility of choice…the person who answers the poll has no responsibility; they are asked how they feel at any given moment, and the very inducement to answer is this: you will have no responsibility for how these statistics are used: you are free, you are, in fact encouraged to answer as self-interestedly as you wish: for a moment there are no restrictions on your libido.

…As pollings has replaced voting as the method of electing our officials, our capacity to stand alone, to think alone, to be content while being in the wrong has all but evaporated….our acceptance of the poll is our rejection of our own thoughts or ideas because to hold them in opposition to ‘majority opinion’ is not as important as to be thought ‘right.’ And there we have American Fascism, in which we become our own dictator, and have forced on ourselves the will, not of others, but of the lowest aspect of ourselves; and this slavery has been forced on us not by the threat of death or torture, but by the threat of the momentary discomfort of being in the wrong.

Given what we know about the power of social influence we should expect essentially arbitrary, but majority, positions to gain strength. An obsession with polling can on exacerbate (more iterations!) this feedback between perceived group position and individual standing. (see also Arrow’s Possibility Theorum; via Crooked Timber).

Can we conclude that there are situations where too much information/communication is (democratically) a bad thing? Is this one of the points where the libertarian (and, incidentally standard economic) theoretical notion of the individual breaks down in the face of human socio-cognitive biases?