The Virtual Public Sphere

Earlier this week we examined some common threads connecting the emergence of an information society during the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press, and the spread of the printed book to today's digital information society. Let's continue that connection with an examination of another transforming aspect of digital society historians will have to consider: the public sphere in the age of the Internet.

The concept of a public sphere was popularized by sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, though he was not the first to discuss the idea.  He points out in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that the rise of the absolute state (such as France under Louis XIV) led to a separation between society and the state as the growing bourgeois society of the middle class sought to counteract the state's increasing social control and political centralization.  The public sphere formed as a space in which political discourse could occur between the state and its citizens.  Its development was a crucial part of the growth of modern society – it helped to emancipate people from arbitrary authority and unthinking customs by allowing them to debate political action. The public sphere shaped the modern, democratic society in which most of our readers live today. In theory, it allowed persons from diverse backgrounds with varying interests to set aside their differences to engage as individuals in discussion.  In simple terms, the public debated political issues in the public sphere, eventually deciding on their public opinion, which in turn shaped government action through the will of the people. 

Of course, in practise the public sphere is not nearly as inclusive as described above. Habermas warns of the “colonization” of the public sphere by money and power, which results in cultural homogenization, a lack of public discourse, and a centralization of decision-making power.  Others have termed this as “commodification and bureaucratization.”  These processes lead to societies where citizens cannot agree with one another and discussion is useless; or, a society where only one perspective is allowed and discussion ceases to exist.  Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition that such outcomes isolate individuals in the “subjectivity of their own singular experience,” negating the power of the public sphere as a place where individuals are exposed to the vast variety of human experience other than their own. 

The modern development of “mass society” is similarly prohibitive.  Mass society is our society. It is one of equals, in that anyone can participate, but also conformist, as it pressures individuals to adapt to social rules, like ideas about femininity or masculinity. Arendt writes: “What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved ... but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” Thus, even as modern democratic society arose alongside the public sphere, the constructed identities that bound its people together (be it national, racial, ethnic, religious, etc.) ultimately exclude people from it.  For instance, it is obvious that all Canadians cannot have one shared identity, history, or set of values. The value of public interaction is not simply in the acknowledgement that different perspectives exist, but also that every human is a unique and autonomous individual.  The ideal public sphere does not subsume individual uniqueness but preserves it, even as it creates a larger group, “the public.” As Arendt points out, it “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other.” The freedom to participate in public discourse without interference (be it overt, such as being jailed for opposing the government, or covert, such as being ostracized for dissenting from the majority) is vital for a healthy, democratic, and modern society.

All of these ideas must inform a historian's approach to the Internet in a digital society.  The virtual public sphere is far broader and immediate than anything previously imagined by sociologists or political theorists.  Online, individuals can express themselves freely and be exposed to the opinions of far more people than in the physical world.  Like the public sphere, it is also contested.  Arguably, we have already lost the battle against Habermas' “colonization” of the public sphere in our physical society, as Arendt's critique implies. However, on the Internet these forces have not yet won.  Christian Fuchs explores the state of these “virtual communities” in his book, Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age, arguing that “cyberspace ... is coined by the forces of commercialization and commodification; on the other hand, it is also a space for a great deal of voluntary, altruistic cooperation as in the case of open-source and open-content communities, Wikipedia, online friendships, online love, and so on.”  The Internet is, so far, more easily accessible and participatory than physical society. Discourse between individuals is safer, as anonymity can protect you from repercussions, and broader, as anyone can participate.  This is not to say that the virtual public sphere does not have its own problems, such as a greater prevalence of “false opinions” (also known as trolling) expressed solely to corrupt or distract real discourse, or cyber-bullying on social network sites.

Recent history suggests that the Internet has helped democratic action.  The Arab Spring, the failed “Green Revolution” in Iran, the Occupy movement, or Canada's Idle No More movement, and others, were all nurtured in the virtual public sphere as much as the real one.  Wikileaks' goal to shed light on secret government policy and actions is only possible through the anonymous online “information dumping” by individuals like Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. Countless online discussions of political issues occurs in the comments of news articles, on forums, or community aggregate sites like Reddit. Barack Obama's computerized, online electoral strategy specifically targeted likely voters through email and owes much to the technological developments of digital society and its enlarged public sphere.  It remains to be seen if a Canadian party can duplicate that success in 2015; but it is clear that Canadian political parties are engaging with the virtual world almost out of necessity.  The virtual public sphere is now a key aspect of political discourse in the 21st century. 

Luckily it is far too soon for historians to really begin addressing these transformations.  The enormity of the task is daunting.  To understand the interaction in the virtual public sphere, historians could examine blogs, twitter, Facebook, online communities, and emails.  Thousands, if not millions, of individuals might have their opinions recorded on a single topic in a single day.  Despite the scale of such an endeavour, it is not a bad thing.  It reminds us of the diversity of our society and forces us to temper our tendency to simplify the past or to conflate complex, individual experiences. 

The future history of digital society promises many fascinating reflections, such as the history of information society in the digital age, and challenges, like a comprehensive analysis of the virtual public sphere.  Scholars must continue to refine their research methods and questions.  This can only be a healthy, exciting, and welcomed direction for the historical profession.