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.