How we have lost a critical public sphere

The structures of communication have profounly changed over the last two decades. In my childhood (10 to 15 years ago), the telephone and postal mail were mainly used to communicate with friends and family members. It was common to read printed newspaper and watch the news on television or listen to the radio. Digitalisation has profoundly changed the way we access and engage with news and information. Like many culture pessimists, I observe a degeneration of the public sphere which is less and less willing to critically engage with information. Yet, is there a prospect that the positive potential of social media and the internet could be appropriated to revive a sphere of reasoning and deliberation as it emerged during the period of Enligthenment?

The Public Sphere: a Space of Reasoning and Autonomy

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas describes how changes of media technologies deeply affected political and social structures. Industrialisation and the intensifying cross-border trade relations during the 18th and 19th centuries led to the emergence of a new social class, the wealthy bourgeoisie, which sought to compete with traditional authorities. The development of press and the increasing circulation of information allowed for more involvement in public matters.

This is the context in which a new culture of discussion and critical reflection grew out of the newly established middle class. In England, people started met in coffee houses to discuss about literature and art. In France, a similar trend could be observed in the salons, which were the first places where noblemen would mingle with the bourgeoisie. These places of encounter formed the germ of a critically reflecting public sphere. A sphere in which citizen could exert their autonomy by engaging into discussions that did not touch upon the mere necessities of life. It wasn’t long before these comparatively affluent and intellectual citizens brought up political matters and made a claim on being involved in political decisions.

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English Coffeehouse, 17th century (Source: Wikipedia)

This environment of critical discussion represents for Habermas an ideal of a critically reflecting public sphere. People who met in coffee houses and salons were considered as equals – everyone had the same authority on matter that were discussed. Discussions dealt with topics that up until then were never considered as questionable but which increasingly came to be perceived as being of common concern. Finally, this public sphere was in principle inexhaustable – it was supposed to be open to everyone.

By starting to make political claims, these citizens did not intend to replace the existing power structures. As Habermas points out, it was more about creating a new principle of legitimation – power was to be to subjected to the norm of reason and the form of law. This change in the principle of power structures would lead to dismantling the tradition political structures, where power was instead justified by nobility and inheritance.

Degeneration of the Public Sphere

The heyday of coffee houses and salons didn’t last however. The clear division between state and society which according to Habermas was an essential condition for a critically reflecting, independent public sphere could not be sustained. Free market competition in early capitalist society led to a disproportionate influence of big companies which had to be contained by the state. A new state interventionism was developed and the state increasingly took over functions that previously had been limited to the private sphere. It took over formative functions such as providing compensations for the economically weaker, implemented redistributive measures, and steered long-term social changes among other things.

The fusion of state and private sphere took place on a reciprocal basis, as politics in turn became a battleground of competing interests – companies and organised labour. In this context, big companies developed into structures that took over more and more social functions: providing social guarantees for employees, offering services, ensuring integration of their employees in the working place and sometimes even building schools, churches and libraries.

Activities that used to be limited to the private sphere of the family – activities related to biological needs and reproduction – became a matter of public concern. It is the same transformation that Hannah Arendt has described in The Human Condition as the invention of ’society‘. Both thinkers have similar views on the consequences of this ‚entprivatisation‘, as Habermas terms it. Society took over tasks that used to be in the responsibility of the family. The latter was left with only consumptive rather than dispositional functions related to providing a social cushion for its members: „the family now really unfolds as the consumer of income and leisure time, the receiver of publicly ensured compensation and life support„. As the whole society organised what used to be familial life, this led to a normalisation of behaviour and the gradual emergence of mass society.

The public sphere that was emancipated from the mere needs of life ceased to exist. Habermas argues that the sphere of a reasoning intellectual public disintegrated, as it was absorbed into the cycle of production and consumption: „When the laws of the markets, which rule over the sphere of the circulation of goods and social labour, also intrude the sphere that was reserved to the private people as a public, reasoning tends to turn into consumption, and the ensemble of public communication disintegrates into the permanently uniform acts of individual reception„.

Habermas laments that the culture of a critically reasoning public, communicating and debating ideas through the medium of literature, has been eroded by these changes. It was replaced by the by the superficial culture of popular radio emissions, large-scale cinema productions and entertainment television accompanied by massive publicity. It is not hard to read into the quotation above the culture pessimism that was pervasive in intellectual circles of the late 60s: it clearly depicts a society where the family as a pillar of social cohesion was dismantled, resulting in a mass of uniform and isolated people.

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Literary discussion culture is replaced by television consumptive behaviour (Image Source: Flickr)

Culture generally was adapted to make it accessible to the broad masses. Very simple formats were sought in order to commercialise news and make stories as profitable as possible. Non-verbal contents were to be preferred over verbal contents: this is particularly obvious on television where music, sounds and images were used to catch the attention of the audience. This approach is qualitatively different from the way culture was made accessible during Enligthenment, as Habermas points out: „The ‚people‘ is raised to cultivate itself, not culture downgraded to the masses“.

Social Media and the Internet: A new culture of reasoning? 

Recent technological changes have altered our habits of engaging with media and communication. One is easily tempted to assume that the internet offers a chance for the revival of a reasoning public. The new forms of communication that are promoted by the internet are not one-sided like the ‚traditional‘ media such as television, radio or newspapers. We are not merely receivers of information or culture anymore, but we are more and more able to interact with the medium. Platforms souch as Soundcloud or Youtube allow us to upload and share our own musical or audiovisual performance; online newspapers always offer the possiblity of leaving comments and of discussing with other readers; Facebook, Twitter and Instragram have made the average user a primary source of information. We have moved from being mere consumers to being producers of information.

There are many reasons to be sceptical, however. Examples where this new potential is used in a fruitful way are rather an exception. What we observe instead is that information has never been as short-lived as today. We are confronted with such a mass of information that we try to spend as little time as possible on any item. There is no time for reflection. Nobody reads a Facebook post that is older than a couple of days; I am not even speaking about Tweets. Moreover, there seems to be a deverbalisation of communication, similar to the one Habermas has witnessed in his time with the emergence of radio and television. The improvement of picture and video technology facilitates this trend. The current hype of Snapchat is paradigmatic for this tendency of deverbalised and short-lived information.

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(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

More importantly, the private sphere that was an essential counterpart to the reasoning public sphere has not been restored. On the contrary, it seems as if every little unsignificant detail has now become a matter of public concern. There is nothing in our ‚private‘ life that wouldn’t get any attention on Facebook or Instagam. Even worse: people prefer spending their time with the insignificant details of other people’s private life rather than reading a well-researched and reflected article. 

Social media and the internet are used to massively collect information on us with the aim of creating psychological profiles and influencing our behaviour. They are used to expose us to the advertisement of big companies as well as political messages. This intrusion into private life combined with a downgrading of the public to the status of mere consumers and receivers of messages seems like the completion of what Habermas has described as the ‚refeudalisation‘ of the public sphere: the return of a society where publicity is used to represent power to a receptive audience, instead of being used for a critical exchange of responsible citizens. Audiovisual material, spread on the internet and used to influence our consumptive (but also our political) behaviour, resembles the function of ceremonies and symbols in feudal societies.

This post ends with a question mark. Is there any sign that this tendency will be reversed any time soon? How can we appropriate the internet and social media to transform the medium into a new platform for critical reflection? Can and should the trend of deprivatisation be reversed? Do we need a sphere of exchange where we can abstract from the mere necessities of life in order to deliberate on political and cultural matters? Are we heading toward an Orwellian society in which no privacy and autonomy is left and we mutually monitor each others behaviour?

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