Can the Public Sphere exist in the Internet Era?

So far in our class on Civic Media, we have tried to define Civic Media and to consider the role of digital inequality in shaping participation in society. Our discussions have mostly featured ideas from researchers, foundations, and American government agencies. This week, we’re going to re-examine civic media in terms of critical theory and philosophy.

Here’s the executive summary: Democratic governments are expected to incorporate the people’s will into their decisions. Can this really happen? The public interest is hard to find among broad disagreements between groups, the emergence of global politics, the growth of multinational organisations, and the birth of Internet-based political movements. Just what kind of democracy might the Internet make possible? Should we discard the public sphere altogether for a more realistic, confrontational approach to democracy?

Public Reason and the Public Sphere

John Rawls puts the liberal argument for democratic compromise very succinctly in his 1997 lecture “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited:”

a basic feature of democracy is the fact of reasonable pluralism– the fact that a plurality of conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious, philosophical, and moral, is the normal result of its culture of free institutions. Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. In view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake. I propose that in public reason comprehensive doctrines of truth or right be replaced by an idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens.

Our response to these issues is incredibly important to real political matters. According to Nancy Fraser, the mission of her approach, “critical theory,” is to interrogate conditions and develop understanding that “can help overcome… problems” (57). Fraser warns that if we misunderstand the limits of democracy, we may mistakenly choose ineffective political tactics. If Rawls is right about the benefits and possibility of rational democracy, then we ought to make it so. If he is wrong, our efforts toward that vision might prevent a more achievable good.

Fraser argues that the liberal view of democracy, which we have seen advocated by Rawls, is inaccurate and oppressive. Her main target is the idea of the public sphere developed by J├╝rgen Habermas. The public sphere is “a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk,” the stage where public reason occurs (Fraser, 57). If a group’s interests are not being represented, they should participate in the public sphere to achieve their interests. This account the public sphere is very compatible with the rhetoric of participation found in our readings last week on digital inequality, which argue that better information and more participation lead to more effective citizens. Fraser disagrees; she points out the institutions and social conventions which constitute the public sphere have typically been available only to white middle class men. She argues that the idea of the public sphere itself, which ignores those who don’t play by convention, has always been a means of political exclusion. Those who take Fraser’s view might well scoff at Putnam and de Tocqueville, whose notions of 19th century civic associations romanticise the democratic posturings of 19th century middle class elites.

Appeals to the conventions of liberal democracy can be an effective political technique against non-establishment groups. Consider, for example, British Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s response to the 52,000 schoolchildren and university students who demonstrated against education cuts in 2010:

“Passion is a good thing. A belief in extending educational opportunity to more people is a good thing. But the way that more heads and hearts will be won in this country is by reasoned argument.” He adds: “On any issue my mind can be changed by passionate argument and logic.” (1556)

By appealing to public reason, Gove claims the moral high ground while refusing to listen to the opinions of young people. He says that if children will only participate on the same terms as political experts, government will take their views into account. Since children cannot be expected to participate on his terms, they are in effect excluded from democracy.

Counterpublics and Other Problems with Public Sphere Theory

We have considered the public sphere as a stage where the people present their views to government. Government then responds as directed by the people. Fraser has argued that contrary to the claims of liberal democracy, the democratic stage is exclusive by nature. Our other readings show that the notion of public reason in the public sphere has two more problems. There is no single stage, and there is no single audience.

Setting aside political parties, Fraser draws our attention to the multiple public spheres which exist within the social strata and minority groups of a multicultural society (66-7). If denied access to the public sphere, these publics talk internally to work out their beliefs, what Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrines.” When government doesn’t listen to them, they may develop unconventional tactics to achieve their ends (boycotts, protests, sit-ins, bribes, lies). Fraser calls these groups “subaltern counterpublics“:

subaltern counterpublics… are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (67).

(the Wikipedia page on the term “Subaltern” is actually rather good, if this is a new term for you.)

Examples of subaltern counterpublics might be feminists, the American Evangelical right, socialist workers, or any issue-based public campaign. Catherine Squires explores the strategies available to these groups in “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere“. She explains that a public sphere can “enclave itself” to survive, develop a counterpublic, or function as a “satellite public sphere” to the wider political discourse.

In addition to its inability to account for counterpublics, an overly-simple public sphere theory fails to account for the following kinds of public:

Just as global communication and mass migration have created complex publics, we cannot apply a simple notion of government to our understanding of power:

  • Powerful multinational corporations may resist regulation and choose against implementing public demands
  • Issues of public interest often require international cooperation
  • The Internet may be shifting people’s group identification away from nations

The Role of the Internet in the Public Sphere

Might the Internet lead to the replacement of national democracy by some kind of virtual public? Anderson argues in Imagined Communities that print capitalism encouraged ideas of intellectual freedom, equality, and humanism which led people to prefer nations instead of the church, monarchy, or empire. Now that the Internet has hobbled print capitalism, might we expect a new form of political organisation to replace nationalism over time?

In “The Emergence of a Networked Public Sphere,” Yochai Benkler raises a very practical problem with inclusion which is not considered in our other readings: if a good public sphere incorporates the views of the public, how could any government process enough information to take their views into account? He sees the media as an imperfect filter whose business model pulls it away from the ideal role of media in a democracy. In his view, the “networked public spheres” which emerge on the Internet can balance the power of mass media and cultivate a healthy ecosystem of counterpublics with genuine involvement. Writing in 2006, Benkler argues that the technical capabilities and social conventions of the Internet can cultivate and filter public opinion more effectively than anything before it.

Two things stand out to me from Benkler’s remarkable piece: his argument on the methods of political discourse, and the fragility of his hopes for the Internet.

Benkler uses every possible kind of source in his arguments: political theory, contemporary political commentaries, case studies, technical descriptions, and mathematical analysis of network topologies. Compared to Benedict Anderson’s thin historical glossing and the theoretical debates of political philosophy, Benkler’s arguments stand out like a paint bomb in a pillow factory. Consider this remarkable paragraph:

my claims on behalf of the networked information economy as a platform for the public sphere are not based on general claims about human nature, the meaning of liberal discourse, context-independent efficiency, or the benevolent nature of the technology we happen to have stumbled across at the end of the twentieth century. They are instead based on, and depend on the continued accuracy of, a description of the economics of fabrication of computers and network connections, and a description of the dynamics of linking in a networked of connected nodes (33).

As a researcher, I am excited by the idea of quantitative evaluations of the possibilities of democracy, drawn from people’s online behaviour. Yet as a lover of ideas, principles and debate, I do feel uncomfortable with Benkler’s approach.

The Public Sphere: Broken, or just Fragile?

I am more worried by the fragility of the democratic possibilities which Benkler outlines. Network topology can be changed by the companies that run it. Online culture might change in ways which diminish the Internet’s democratic potential. Five years after Benkler’s book, we might argue that the this has already happened. Perhaps social networking and mass personalisation have already reconfigured information topology to anaesthetise the Internet’s capacity for democracy.

Overall, Benkler argues that the Internet functions as an ecosystem of public spheres, facilitating the development of counterpublics and enabling them to influence power through public reason or more direct tactics. As much as I would like to believe the result is more democracy, I don’t think it is. In an era of glacial change on globally-urgent issues, where children are brushed off and the tactics of power are more effective than public reason, the liberal view of democracy seems very far off. If that’s true, then I hope Fraser is right, that the limits of democracy are larger than our broken public sphere.