The Public Sphere and Digital Culture

The Public Sphere and Digital Culture
Among media scholars and sociologists of media, there is a lively debate about the impact of the Internet and new media on our societies and daily life. Is digital culture just a logical continuation of 20th century modernity or are we actually witnessing a dramatic, qualitative change taking place? Will the societies in later 21st century differ from those of ours as drastically as, say, capitalist societies differed from feudal communities? And how can we even approach the issue? How do we know whether changes in our societies are fundamental or cosmetic?
One way to approach the changes is through the idea of public sphere. The concept was coined by the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. (The book was only translated into English in 1989, but has since become a key text for both political theory and media studies.) For Habermas, the public sphere is a key element of modern societies. It is a social space or area where free individuals discuss political and social issues. Public sphere is not necessarily—or even usually—a physical location for face-to-face meetings, but rather a virtual or imaginary community, that is largely constituted and maintained by free media and communication.

The Public Sphere and Digital Culture in ancient timesThe public sphere has turned out to be a very fruitful concept for analyzing online societies, social media and digital communications. In this sense, it seems that digitalization and globalization have not radically transformed our societies and politics. Their impact seems to be an increase in the volume or intensity of communication, rather than a qualitative shift. It is undeniable that the internet and digital technology have made possible dramatically faster communication, and the ubiquity of social media has called into question the status of traditional media and the ideals of professional journalism. But ultimately, even the social media strongly resembles the Habermasian idea of the public sphere, albeit in a somewhat fragmentary form: people form virtual online communities share information and experiences, debate various issues (both important and trivial) and simply make personal connections.

However, there is one emerging factor that suggests that a more radical political and social transformation is underway: algorithms. In the online world, we are increasingly interacting not only with other participants of the virtual public sphere, but also with internet bots – often without even realizing it. According to recent news reports, a great deal of political disinformation and propaganda online is spread by internet bots rather than real human beings. Furthermore, Facebook is facing its biggest scandal to date right now, due to the fact that a political analytics company with a questionable reputation has managed to collect private data from the its users without their consent. It is still too early to say anything about the future of the Internet and social media, but the increasing role of AI and non-human agents in the online communities suggest that they may be turning into something fundamentally different from anything we have seen so far. A virtual community in which pieces of algorithm are able to manipulate, upset or monitor human users is hardly any more compatible with the Habermasian idea of the public sphere, where free individuals gather to debate, share information and express their views.

By Juho Ahava

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