The public sphere conceptualized by Jürgen Habermas concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. It has important implications for our democratic developments and political transformations. The great virtue of the public sphere idea is that it calls our attention to critical reflection on the role of the media in social communication. As the media landscape and infrastructure become more and more complex, academic scholars have increasingly invested in revising and offering critique to the public sphere idea. However, there are few scholarships looking at the practices and imaginaries of the media and technology activist groups in civil society, whom I will refer to as civic tech activists, to conceptualize how they enact the public sphere and enable rational public discourse. Since they are important actors in the constitution of the public sphere, we need to understand what they are doing to produce and shape public discussion. Therefore, this paper aims to answer this question and provide constructive evaluation of Habermas’s public sphere idea from the perspective of civil society groups. While there are many different segments of the civil society, this paper focuses on the media and technology activist groups as they are essentially at the front line of acting on and changing the media. In the following, I shall describe the main concepts central to the public sphere and digital networks. Next, I will analyze how the civic tech activist groups’ practices and imaginaries can offer useful insights into constructing the public sphere. In the conclusion, I will suggest the agendas for further study of the public sphere from the media and data activism perspective.
In this section, some of the central concepts and theories mobilized for this study are explored, including Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere and its critique, John Durham Peters’s theory of elemental media, and Nick Couldry’s critique of digital networks theory.
Habermas’ theory of the public sphere has powerfully influenced academic discourses in various disciplines from political science to media and communication studies. It is widely accepted as the standard work for discussion and reflection on citizens’ participation in political discussion and the role of media in politics and everyday life. Through his analysis of the history of the public sphere, Habermas points out its weaknesses and contradictions, and from there formulates a normative claim of how a public sphere should be. First, it should be, in principle, accessible to all citizens. Second, Habermas defines the public sphere as:
“A domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is opened in principle to all citizens… Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely (The Public Sphere 55).”
Despite being legitimized through public in elections, the state is not a part but a counterpart of the public sphere. Ideally, within the public sphere, private persons come together as if equals for open and rational debate and discussion in order to form public opinion, and consensus is achieved only through the force of rationality (55-58). In the process in which private opinions were transformed into public opinion, the media plays an important role in mediating and mobilizing the public sphere (58). Public opinion, not mere opinion or personal opinion made public, “is formed only if a public that engages in rational discussion exists” (56). It could be summarized that Habermas’ model of public sphere can only be achieved in the context of a liberal political culture, when citizens are free and active agents in an already rationalized society, and when the media, as a mandatory of enlightened public, facilitates public discussions without the influence of their own commercial or political interests.
Habermas’ concept of public sphere has received both acclamation and criticism, mostly because his normative claims were based on the analysis of bourgeois public sphere, which relied on small-scale print media and face-to-face discussion, thus making it difficult to apply to modern societies in which citizens’ relations to the media are far more complex. Craig Calhoun suggests that the notion of the homogenous bourgeois public sphere is damaging to practices of democracy as it excluded women, ethnic and racial minorities, and it was built on the backs of the working class (cited in Dean 96). Taking it further, Dean makes the point that the norms of the public sphere have been adopted by a “communicative capitalism” and turned into an ideology of publicity in service of those with resources and power (102). One of her main concerns is the notion of the public sphere has been based on the idea that power is external, hidden, secret (110). Therefore, Dean puts forward the theory of neo-democracies, which reject the fantasy of a public and work from the antagonism of political life (108). Neo-democracies are configured through contestation and conflicts, instead of legal and rational procedures and consensus as in the public sphere model (109).
The development of the Internet and the emergence of personal blogging and social network platforms have given hope that the norms of Habermasian public sphere can be fulfilled and a deliberative democracy can be actualized. However, as shown in Peters’s analysis of the ethereal digital media, the practices and structures of the new platforms are the extension of early media practices. Whereas Habermas is more concerned about the social and political structure of the media in mobilizing the public sphere, Couldry and Peters point at its technical aspects as strongly influencing human interactions and knowledge-making. As much as Google’s search algorithms and storage infrastructure are phenomenal achievements, they essentially configure human’s knowledge and memories. Building his analysis on how Google’s systems work, Peters argues that algorithm of networks is constantly updated and secret, and the networks are managing the relations people have with themselves, others and the natural world. An important argument Peters made is that anything that is not recorded or indexed may be lost forever in the realm of Google and eventually the social world. This reflection is important as our identities and social life are increasingly recorded and datafied; however, there are still so many aspects, activities, knowledge, and people that are undocumented (329). It becomes clear that networked technologies are shaping our knowledge which becomes a part of self-constitution of public.
In similar fashion, Couldry argues that digital networks fail to facilitate long-term public discussion and political transformations; instead, their infrastructures and protocols accelerate short-term commitments, which result in less stability in collective debate and action. From the perspective of Couldry, public is a myth of the digital networks, which encourage us to believe that our participation and interaction on public debate on social media platforms have important contribution to social and political change (608). In fact, the digital networks result in users retreating to their private spheres. As Couldry explains:
“Social media target individuals, drawing them into regular interactions with other individuals that they choose, and then monetizing that potential attention and the related consumer data that such interactions generate… A new myth is emerging about the types of collectivity that we form when we use social networking platforms: a myth of natural collectivity whose paradigmatic form lies in how we gather on platforms such as Facebook (619-20).”
Deconstructing this myth is, therefore, crucial in understanding how digital networks threaten to disintegrate the structural transformation of the public sphere: public space becomes increasingly privatized. That is to say that our participation and engagement in public discussion is partly decided by the algorithm which was designed with commercial and private interests, and that individuals shrink away from the public debate with those of contrastive opinions.
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