Habermas blows off question about the Internet and the Public Sphere
November 5th, 2007

I recently asked Jurgen Habermas in a public forum what his current opinion is about the state of the public sphere, now that the broadcast era has been supplanted by the many-to-many media that enable so many people to use the Internet as a means of political expression. He blew off the question without explanation, and a little further investigation into the very sparse pronouncements he has made in this regard has led me to understand that he simply does not understand the Internet. His ideas about the relationship between public opinion and democracy and the role of communication media, and the commodification and manipulation of political opinion via public relations, are still vitally important. But I think it’s important now to build new theories and not simply to rely on Habermas, who is signalling his ignorance of the meaning of the changes in the infosphere that have taken place in recent decades. He did his part in his time, but the ideal public sphere he described — a bourgeois public sphere dominated by broadcast media — should not be taken as the model for the formation of public opinion in 21st century democracies. Some background on my interest in this subject and Habermas’ personal opinion follows. And then I’ll briefly describe my recent encounter with the man himself.

When I wrote The Virtual Community in 1992, the most important question to me was whether or not the advent of many-to-many communication via the Internet would lead to stronger or weaker democracies, more or less personal liberty, which led me to the work of Jurgen Habermas on what he called “the public sphere.” I quoted him in the final chapter:

Here is what the preeminent contemporary writer about the public sphere, social critic and philosopher Jurgen Habermas, had to say about the meaning of this abstraction:

By “public sphere,” we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. They are then acting neither as business or professional people conducting their private affairs, nor as legal consociates subject to the legal regulations of a state bureaucracy and obligated to obedience. 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.

In this definition, Habermas formalized what people in free societies mean when we say “The public wouldn’t stand for that” or “It depends on public opinion.” And he drew attention to the intimate connection between this web of free, informal, personal communications and the foundations of democratic society. People can govern themselves only if they communicate widely, freely, and in groups–publicly. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects citizens from government interference in their communications–the rights of speech, press, and assembly are communication rights. Without those rights, there is no public sphere. Ask any citizen of Prague, Budapest, or Moscow.

Because the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, as soon as your political entity grows larger than the number of citizens you can fit into a modest town hall, this vital marketplace for political ideas can be powerfully influenced by changes in communications technology. According to Habermas,

When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. . . . The term “public opinion” refers to the functions of criticism and control or organized state authority that the public exercises informally, as well as formally during periodic elections. Regulations concerning the publicness (or publicity [Publizitat] in its original meaning) of state-related activities, as, for instance, the public accessibility required of legal proceedings, are also connected with this function of public opinion. To the public sphere as a sphere mediating between state and society, a sphere in which the public as the vehicle of publicness–the publicness that once had to win out against the secret politics of monarchs and that since then has permitted democratic control of state activity.

Although I got up at 6 AM last Friday to prepare and commute to a 9-noon class at Berkeley, I added two hours more driving to my day to drive to Stanford to hear Habermas speak at the Richard Rorty memorial lecture. The central question about the meaning of my own work — does Internet communication improve the public sphere, and therefore, democracy, or does it not? — revolves around ideas he is credited with inventing. The lecture was abstruse analytical philosophy. When he finished, only one person stepped up to the microphone to ask a question. This was in one of Stanford’s largest auditoriums — Cubberley — and it was a standing-room crowd. The questioner was the chair of the philosophy department. It’s a big deal among academics that Rorty, the famous pragmatist, was hired by the comparative literature department — because Stanford philosophy professors are all analytical. So Habermas and this prof went back and forth about that. Nobody else stepped up to the mike! I could never forgive myself if I failed to step up, but I have to say that my heart was pounding in my chest. Everybody at Stanford who cares about Habermas was watching. I begged his forgiveness for a brief digression from the discussion of Rorty’s philosophy but said that I could not forego the opportunity to ask what he thought of the future and health of the public sphere, now that the broadcast era he wrote about has been supplanted by an infosphere in which so many people use the infosphere to express political opinion.

He blew me off! He didn’t say “out of respect for Rorty, I will decline to discuss my own work.” He didn’t say “that’s complicated and would take more time than I have.” He didn’t say, “I’m working on that and wish to remain silent until I publish.” He rather inelegantly said that he wouldn’t answer that, and I should perhaps refer to the recent book of interviews with Rorty. I couldn’t let it go at that, so I said, before walking away — in front of all of Stanford, it seemed to me — that many people in the world are very interested in his answer to this question and hope that he will address it in some way.

But right now, I think he has invalidated himself. Abstruse philosophical and obscure academic feuds are more important than the future of democracy? He proved to me by his actions that philosophy is rendering itself irrelevant. He was the last bastion for those who feel that philosophy speaks to the real problems of the modern world.

Afterward, my friend Mike Love pointed me to this long and thoughtful blog post about Habermas’ statement to the International Communication Association, which quoted Habermas:

The Internet has certainly reactivated the grassroots of an egalitarian public of writers and readers. However, computer-mediated communication in the web can claim unequivocal democratic merits only for a special context: It can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes that try to control and repress public opinion. In the context of liberal regimes, the rise of millions of fragmented chat rooms across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics. Within established national public spheres, the online debates of web users only promote political communication, when news groups crystallize around the focal points of the quality press, for example, national newspapers and political magazines. (A nice indicator for the critical function of such a parasitical role of online communication is the bill for €2088,00 that the anchor of Bildblog.de recently sent to the director of Bild.T-Online for “services”: The bloggers claimed they improved the work of the editorial staff of the Bildzeitung with useful criticisms and corrections … ).
(p. 423-4, fn. 3 in the published article; p. 9, fn. 14 in the transcript)

This fear of fragmentation is similar to the fear articulated by Cass Sunstein about “the Daily We,” in which the ability to choose one’s own sources online could lead to a world in which everyone only pays attention to like-minded thinkers (also known as the “echo chamber” — a notion that David Weinberger questioned articulately in Salon). I believe this is a serious concern and should not be dismissed prematurely. I also believe that there is plenty of evidence to the contrary — how much of the blogosphere consists of critiques that link directly to the sources that the blogger disagrees with? Yochai Benkler has offered his own counterargument to what he calls “the Babel objection.“)

However, Habermas — a man whose theory of communicative action places high priority on precision of communication — describes Internet discourse as “a series of chat rooms,” which is a telltale that he doesn’t understand the phenomenon he is describing. Certainly, the Internet hosts chat rooms, many of which are the site of political discussion of varying degrees of rationality and civility. But as millions of people know, there are mailing lists, wiki talk pages, blogs and blog comments, and message boards as well. What I wish Habermas had said, since he clearly does not understand a phenomenon that is central to the applicability of his theory in the 21st century, is “I leave that work to younger scholars, who can build contemporary theories on the foundations of my earlier work about the role of the public sphere in an infosphere dominated by mass media.” But that is indeed what needs to be done. I have no pretensions to fulfilling that role myself, but unless we know, and know soon, whether or not the web as it is developing can revitalize the public sphere, all other philosophical conversations may be mooted by the rise of disinfotainment, disinformocracy, and the actual emergence of the simulation that we don’t recognize as a simulation described by Baudrillard.

(I recognize that significant critiques of Habermas exist, such as Nancy Fraser’s, and that some, like Mark Poster, Pieter Boeder, and Douglas Kellner, have tackled the question of Habermas’ relevance to Internet discourse. Nevertheless, I believe further work is needed.)

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