Jurgen Habermas and the Digital Public Sphere

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


In chapter twenty I discuss the likelihood of the development of the Digital Public Sphere drawing heavily on the work of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. There I suggest that the Digital Public Sphere may offer an alternative form of public sphere.

One where political discourse may more freely be exchanged between the proletariat and the bourgeois, and one where thanks to the pseudonymity offered speech is less susceptible to chilling effects. This attractive prospect has encouraged many academics to discuss the ‘virtual public sphere’ as an extension of Habermas’s original public sphere.

I note though that the existence of a Digital Public Sphere is challenged and may not be assumed:

In a debate which mirrors the wider regulatory debate between cyberlibertarians and cyberpaternalists others argue that the design of cyberspace may restrict participation in the online environment. Thus, as with many other online freedoms we fi nd that participation in the virtual public sphere rests on a knife edge as many of the threats discussed earlier in this book:

threats to freedom of expression and discourse, access, and privacy risk a lack of public confi dence in the security of the virtual public sphere and in the freedom to take part in unfettered democratic discourse offered by the information society. This is not to say that the contribution the information society makes to the public sphere is to be ignored, or even undervalued. It affects our understanding of several areas of online activity.

I did not imagine that before the book was on the shelves the famously reclusive philosopher would discuss these issues in a newspaper interview but on Saturday 1st May the Financial Times published an interview with Habermas which discussed his view on some though not all aspects of the Digital Public Sphere. The interview was promulgated by the Twitterjacking of Habermas’s identity by a 140 character imposter who tweeted such entries as:

It’s true that the internet has reactivated the grass-roots of an egalitarian public sphere of writers and readers.

This (and other) tweet(s) sent is/was taken from the footnotes of Habermas’s 2006 paper Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension?

It is reported that Habermas was irritated by this stating: “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake.” In asking him about this incident journalist Stuart Jeffries got Habermas to discuss more widely the Digital Public Sphere. Some choice quotes from the article include:

The internet generates a centrifugal force. It releases an anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.

As regards its impact on the public sphere, accelerated communication opens up entirely new possibilities for organising activities and for large-scale political mobilisations of widely dispersed addressees. I still receive at least one e-mail per week from Obama’s election team. These communications refer to issues and events within the political system, which they in turn influence. However, they remain contingent on their relation to the real decision-making processes that take place outside the virtual space of electronically networked monads.

Where does this leave us? Well Habermas seems to suggest the web is too chaotic to provide a functional public sphere – in this sense he is echoing Sunsetin’s balkanisation arguments. He also seems to be rejecting the cyberlibertarian argument that the online society represents a “place” separate to off-line society. It should be noted that he does not reject the idea of global civil society later in the interview he says.

Today we need institutions capable of acting on a global scale. We can see that the noble resolutions of the G20 summit in London on stockmarket oversight and regulation of the financial markets remain empty words without worldwide political co-ordination. The tentative measures undertaken by individual national governments in this area are condemned to failure for obvious reasons.

Thus it seems it is more the system of digital communications that Habermas rejects rather than the idea of global civil society. Therefore is the problem that there is no online culture and society as suggested by numerous commentators – Sunstein included? Is the web merely a cacophony of noise never a community choir? Far be it from me to suggest that one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century has it wrong but maybe there is something in that statement. Do we now need to think of Habermas as a 20th Century philosopher – not a 21st Century one?

Habermas is now eighty and was sixty when the web was created. Maybe he’s not the person to pronounce on its abilities to host a truly new form of public sphere for as Douglas Adams observed:

Technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything that is developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after that is treated with suspicion.


About Imam Samroni

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