Jurgen Habermas and the Mess of a ‘Digital Public Sphere’

Let’s pretend for a minute that Jurgen Habermas’ view of an ideal political-public sphere exists. I say ‘pretend’ because, well, there’s still quite a bit of debate as to whether a space exists where individuals can discuss affairs of politics, business or anything. If we’re defining rational-critical discourse mainly by its structural difference from  discourse monopolized by the state, that seems to imply there’s an ideal area where private citizens can converse outside the direct power of the state (Habermas’ private homes, the salons of the private citizen, and so on).

It’s obviously a stretch to assume the actions of the Court and the Church had no direct influence on the discussions of private citizens – England loved to issue censorship rule after censorship rule precisely because they had influence over these kinds of citizen communications. For quite some time, very little printed or discussed matter passed by eyes or ears in London or Paris without the tacit consent of the crown. It’s good to be the King.

Enter the Internet, where it appears some conversations can go on outside the purview of some governments, as evidenced by Egyptian protest organizers in 2011 and Belarusian social media renegades in 2006.

There seems to be some legitimacy here. Let’s break out our ‘Public Sphere Checklist’ and see how the social networks of 2011 stack up against Habermas’ two most important public sphere requirements: Equality and Inclusivity.

Equality of Status and Inclusivity

On the face of it, social networks make people equal. But let’s look a little bit more. Much like the social clubs Habermas waxes poetic over, social networks come with hidden and not-so-hidden requirements for entry.

Owning a computer may not be a notable achievement for most Americans, but what about countries where Internet cafés are the dominant form of access? Given most of the world works all day to achieve some brief respite from misery, the majority of the developing world spends most of their time excluded from the conversation. Consistent, dense social networks like those of Egypt are generally due factors outside the natural allure of social networks, mainly an already wealthy state with educated citizens. Keep in mind, Egypt sat on a fence until lawyers, engineers and young, jobless professionals with personal Internet connections joined in.

Not only is most of the world excluded from participation in the Web’s marketplace of ideas, few movements attract much attention even if they take the serious risks of getting online. The megaphone of social media is given to few, your Kutchers and assorted lesser Kardashians in the developed world key among them.

Look at how Libyans struggled to connect even their own unhappy population before NATO shored up Internet infrastructure by bombing the ever-loving hell out of troops advancing on Libya’s major arteries of inbound and outbound communication.

For the majority of the world, gaining basic access to reliable Internet is a significant hardship while mobile application development company vacancies, so typical in the rest of the world, are as rare as hen’s teeth. Even then, being included in the elite group of “those who are heard” is harder still. Are you rallying for the patriots of the Burmese Civil War? Check midway through the New York Times, behind an article about Newt Gingrich’s “family values.”  They even have a Facebook page, with all of 9,000 supporters. All else being equal, it simply isn’t.

So What is the Internet, Then?

There’s no doubting the Internet is a communications revolution, but it’s certainly not a coherent public sphere. By its sheer size and global reach alone, it’s most likely impossible for even a dominant plurality of “the Internet” to be talking about any one thing at once. Before we pray at the altar of the Internet-as-democratic-commons, let’s stop and think about how we actually use the product. Let’s play an honesty game. I’ll even let you self censor, but only if you’re looking at porn:

When you finish reading this article, list all of your currently open browser tabs. How many do you have? Are you even internally thinking about one thing at a time on the Internet? How many of your open tabs involve talking with other people on a topic as opposed to merely reading an article or conducting a search? 

Let’s be honest and see what comes out. I’m willing to bet the submissions will vary, that no one topic will find a majority of all users even within the same graduate program, within the same 50-mile area focusing on mainly the same subjects. And in one of the great shames of our generation, my most recent tab is the trailer for Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Yeah, I know, Burma.

Analyzing the Ethical Pitfalls of All-Virtual Workplaces

Digital workplaces bring with them the promise of an ever-expanding pool of potentially employable workers. An employee free to move about the country and maximize their purchasing power thanks to an entirely-virtual workplace need not fear expensive metropolitan areas or the crime, crowding and chaos big cities often develop.

I am an advocate of telecommuting and virtual workplaces, not only because many of the positions I've held in the past have been made available exclusively through telecommuting. The benefits of virtual workplaces over brick-and-mortar establishments seem clear enough upon even cursory inspection: Employers can pull from a much larger pool of potential workers, virtual workplaces create a natural need for collaboration and communication between levels of a company, reductions in commuting time lead not only to fewer traffic jam-related headaches, but also to an overall greener workplace.

Be that as it may, there are also major ethical dilemmas unique to virtual workplaces. The division of employee and employer creates major questions related to true productivity, employee honesty, and the proper division of labor among members of a virtual group. The technological boundaries to virtual work are by and large behind us, and even boutique companies can make use of free-to-use virtual worlds like OpenSim and Second Life for meeting purposes. But the ethical questions remain.


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The U.S. Government is More Wired than Ever. But Is It Secure?

PH2008121903097 Over the past few years, the U.S. government has led the way in integrating virtual world technology in to the physical workspace.

From the Department of Energy to the Marines, government is a major consumer of cutting-edge virtual world and simulation technology. But is Uncle Sam getting too dependent on virtual platforms?

Pixels and Policy takes a look at our government's avatar addiction, and the potential downsides of the habit.


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Analyzing the Growth of Virtual Worlds as Scientific Research Tools

Virtual worlds have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and their applications in expressing political messages and building competitive online-based businesses seem to expand with each new release. But what about scholars at universities and think tanks who hope to use virtual worlds and the social microcosms they create as part of serious academic study?

Pixels and Policy has been skeptical about how some news agencies have looked at virtual worlds as pop-sci "fun fact" generators, but for those willing to invest the time and resources in virtual world research, the Metaverse can yield very interesting and useful data on how people interact, work, and manage a second life in the virtual realm. Pixels and Policy takes a look.


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Are Mobile Web Devices Turning Us Antisocial, or Merely Shifting the Conversation?

2705240882_b4db3777f8 One of the engines driving the astounding growth of virtual worlds is the innate sense of possibility. Players can be anything, quest anywhere, and rise to the top in combat and charisma.

But is the fantasy role-playing mindset creeping over into our everyday lives? A columnist for St. Louis Today argues that our fascination with virtual environments may be making us into a generation of egotists.

Is the increasingly graphical world of mobile phone technology and Twitter-on-the-go turning us into antisocial monsters, or is it merely shifting the forum for discussion? Are we moving away from a community of ideas, or are we virtualizing it? Let's take a look.

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Critiquing the Effectiveness of Virtual and Social Media in Political Campaigns

The media fell in love with Barack Obama's virtual world outreach, from Second Life campaign offices to the (now) Presidential Twitter Account and a multi-million member Facebook fan page. As Americans head into the 2010 Midterm Elections, candidates and incumbents from both sides of the political aisle are making virtual outreach a priority.

But all is not well in the virtual campaign world. Hopes are running high that candidates in the United Kingdom's upcoming elections will make use of the same kind of game-changing technology that thrust Barack Obama into the White House. But as one major international newspaper reports, the outsized success of virtual political campaigning in the United States may not expand well to countries lacking America's unique electoral system.

The great vault into the future promised by virtual world campaigning and critiqued by this blog back in December may be progressing slower than social media's mavens like to think. Let's take a look.

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How Virtual Worlds Are Evolving and Supporting Players with Disabilities

Virtual worlds can profoundly
impact both our personal
sense of self
and the ideals of a wider community, but how is the
Metaverse affecting younger generations? A thought-provoking report by
Gizmodo reveals that our perceptions of who we are may be evolving with
our exposure to new technology.

written a few articles about virtual world accessibility by those with
disabilities, but I've never taken as deep a look as I'd like at the
potentially liberating aspect of virtual worlds on those with severe
mobility limitations. 

Though far from perfect, virtual
worlds are evolving for those with disabilities, and changing the
perceptions of may others when it comes to playing a game with an
able-bodied avatar controlled by a physically disabled player. Let's
take a look at some interesting examples of this virtual-real crossover.

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China Struggles to Evolve in the Age of Online Gaming

Worldofwarcraft_chinaChina is an interesting case, a society where strict cultural censorship gives way to a vibrant community of online gamers. But this online freedom only exists up to a point, as both Google and World of Warcraft can attest.

China's educated middle and upper classes are voracious online gamers, and many are unhappy with several proposed changes to the popular Chinese online game "Legend." This caps off a tumultuous few months for a Chinese government struggling to come to terms with the emergence of virtual worlds.

Let's take a look at why some Chinese gamers are staging virtual world protests, and why the Chinese government is moving to shut down offending servers in a bid to control the potential threat of unchained protest.

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For the First Time, E-Book Sales Top Real Books

An interesting article in today's New York Times, courtesy of the increasingly tech-savvy young journalists banging out copy for the Grey Lady. According to virtual bookseller extraordinaire Amazon.com, it is now selling 143 electronic books for its Kindle reader for every 100 physical hardcover books. For effete, left-wing e-book doubters like myself, Amazon's admission is more than a little shocking.

At the root of the story is Amazon's Kindle, the somewhat clunky, grayscale reader now in competition with Apple's iPhone and the Barnes and Noble doppelganger Nook. Compared to the low-resolution e-book readers of the early 2000's (think PalmPilot), all three current-generation devices are loaded with features to make electronic reading a seamless transition.

From screens that mimic paper to the announcement that new iPads will come complete with retina display, developers are no longer simply bundling e-reader technology as one more tool in a suite of products. E-books are front and center.

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How Tough Economic Times are Encouraging Virtual Workplaces

Leftimg The sputtering global economy could have a silver lining – companies looking to cut travel costs are turning to the virtual world for more business services than ever.

As CNN reports, companies are increasingly turning to telecommuting and virtual conferencing in graphical virtual worlds as a means of shaving costs and remaining competitive in an economy where credit is still tight and government life preservers are harder to come by.

Pixels and Policy takes a look at the exodus to the virtual business landscape.

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