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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Comments
1 - jeremy

but really, why worry about habermas. He can go do his own work and it can be appreciated for what it is, which in many eyes ends up pretty moot. To me I’ve always seen his work as establishing a normative position describing the way humans should be, not the way we are. If you find it useful, by all means use his work, but to make claims about the work that you think he should do, or things you think he should have opinions on… seems to me to be a bit off kilter. It isn’t like we come up to Howard Rheingold and say, ‘Howard I don’t see how your work applies to the relationships between Oil Rig workers and divers in the middle east, could you elaborate on that.’ You could, but you’d have to do some research else you would likely make some inappropriate assumptions, much like Habermas.

2 - Lew Friedland

The question of how the Internet transforms Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere is a critical one, and one that Habermas certainly hasn’t integrated into his theory. But your post doesn’t really give your readers an idea of why this may be so. Further, it portrays Habermas as somewhat rude and obtuse. He is neither.

Habermas is 78 years old. Much of his time in the past ten years since the rise of the Internet has been spent on other problems, for example the need for a regime of international law that is globally respected, the rise of religious intolerance and nationalism, and the consequences of 9/11. Perhaps he should have been spending his time studying the net to better understand it, but might we also be better off for his having addressed these issues? He has spent much time on properly philosophical issues as well, but, really, isn’t that his choice as he moves towards the end of his life and career?

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was written in 1962. Habermas resisted translating it into English for years, and was only persuaded to do so in the late 1980s, precisely because he thought it was an immature early work. The fact that media and cultural studies and communication scholars read it as definitive (and out of context) for many years, was hardly his responsibility. During the years since it’s English publication in 1989 his Between Facts and Norms (1992, English 1996) offered a major revision of his theory of the public sphere, in light of growing complexity in the relations among civil society, the economy, and the state (Chapters 7 and 8). This revision recognizes and theorizes the power of the state, elites and elite media, and other networks in civil society to filter and channel public opinion. One could argue that the Net has changed all this, but I think this would be wrong. His theory still offers a more nuanced model of how public opinion is formed in a Net driven society than one that essentially argues that disintermediation has rendered these vertical lines of power and authority irrelevant.

You are right to point to Yochai Benkler’s work as an elegant and important revision of the theory of the public sphere in a networked society. But Benkler himself recognizes that he is building on Habermas’s theory. Ironically, Sunstein has moved from his Daily Me theories in Republic.com and in Infotopia reverses himself to acknowledge the centrality of new networked sources of opinion. With my colleagues Tom Hove and Hernando Rojas, I have also tried to grapple with the implications of the Net for Habermas’s theory (http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/~lfriedla/netps.pdf). There’s a lot to be done bring the theory of the public sphere into the present, but Habermas basically has said that he will leave that work to younger scholars who understand the Net better than he does.

Finally, Habermas has a very specific sense of obligation when he speaks in public, particularly in a formal situation in which he is giving a named lecture. If he is giving a lecture on philosophy, he is likely to stick to the topic. He was there to honor Rorty, his long time friend and interlocutor, not pontificate about his theory of the public sphere, so he referred you to Rorty’s own writing. This may not have satisfied you, but in fact is much more modest than insisting that he speak on the spot to the issue that you thought he should be addressing.

Lew, thank you for educating me. Your points are well taken, and I will read your grappling with interest. I recently received email from someone else in Wisconsin who has done some work on related issues. I haven’t had time to read his work yet. His name is Dhavan Shah, and he seems to be presenting empirical work that challenges Sunstein’s claims in Daily Me. I’ll blog it when I read it.

Jeremy, I’ll have to take polite exception to your simile. I know nothing about oil rig workers. Habermas popularized the public sphere and ought to be interested in the most serious changes in the mediasphere underlying it. I popularized the term “virtual community,” and whenever I am asked in public about whether this degrades “real community,” or whether time spent communicating online is a net loss of social capital, I feel obligated to address the question, however briefly.

4 - Stan

Dear Howard

Thank you for this post. I read Habermas a long time ago, in poli sci class, before the internet came of age. Since then, I’ve been trying to follow and study what the web means for political communications and the new public space. I’ve been looking for research that would ‘actualize’ Habermas’ thinking in the context of the new mediasphere: I was very glad to find some scholars’ names and sources mentioned in your article that seem to address my question. Thank you for taking the time to share this.

Thanks Howard for the report on your encounter with Habermas. As you know, I agree with the central importance of the issue you’re raising.

My first thought is that it may be the case that Habermas doesn’t understand the Internet. That would certainly be understandable. After all, everybody’s knowledge is finite. And nobody’s right all of the time.

The discussion around Habermas reminds me of one I heard in relation to John Dewey. Dewey was America’s foremost public intellectual and was instrumental in promoting many of America’s most significant social innovations. It was said, however, that he didn’t “understand” motion pictures. I’m not enough of a Dewey scholar to know how valid this conclusion might be but in any case it wouldn’t be surprising to me. But that doesn’t invalidate Dewey’s other achievements.

In addition to this extremely brief and informal defense of Habermas, I did want to take issue with two other comments in your essay. Although each may be attributed to an informal style I suspect (fear) that some of your readers may take your words more literally than perhaps you intended.

The first is your statement that “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.” I would quibble with the idea that the first amendment does the protecting — it is people invoking the first amendment and the institutions that have been developed (again by people) to foster that protection. I would also quibble with the idea that you seem to be proposing that a society either has a public sphere or it doesn’t, as if it were a binary situation. Your verbiage implies that the public sphere fully exists in the United States and has no existence in other countries. While I’d argue that there are many good things about the “public sphere” in the U.S., it’s FAR from perfect. Also, at the same time, people in other countries whose “public sphere” may enjoy less respect and protection by law and culture, also have some type of “public sphere”, however imperfect it may be. This question seems to me to be much more nuanced than your verbiage suggests.

Finally, I wanted to comment on your statement about “The central question about the meaning of my own work — does Internet communication improve the public sphere, and therefore, democracy, or does it not?” Again, your “central question” seems to be unrealistically binary. I’d submit that the most important “central question” that could be raised is not whether or not the Internet improves democracy. The Internet is not a static entity and neither are the forces that help shape it. Neither large media corporations nor individual people are inert spectators. For those reasons, I submit that the more difficult — and more useful — question is “What can be done to influence the ongoing evolution of the public sphere (including the Internet) to make information and communication systems more useful to people in our attempts to govern ourselves and our planet. The “answer” to the question of Internet-enabled democracy is not yes or no. In my opinion, it’s “let’s try to make it happen.”

For one attempt to discuss Habermas and the Internet see A. Michael Froomkin, Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace, 116 HARV. L. REV. 749 (2003), available at http://www.law.miami.edu/~froomkin/discourse/ils.pdf

Thank you, Michael. I’ll read it.

Hey Doug — I wrote that sentence about Prague, Budapest and Moscow before the fall of communism, and for that era, I will stand by it.

And I stand by the notion that we are a nation of laws. Of course humans created the first amendment. It wasn’t made by elephants. But without it, it would be every man (sic) for himself.

And for your quibbles about being unrealistically binary, have you ever written a book and dealt with an editor? Your point is well taken, and the book had to come in under 1000 pages. I didn’t invent the question — it’s just been asked of me hundreds of times.

As for Dewey, if a central point of his work had to do with the role of popular culture and the mass media — as the role of mass media plays a central role in Habermas’ discussion of the public sphere — I would expect him to try to understand cinema, yes. Or to pass the torch to younger scholars and admit that he couldn’t keep up. When I’m no longer capable of dealing with the latest variations on themes that I feel responsible for — virtual community and smart mobs, for example — I’ll be happy to admit it.

And of course I agree with your conclusion.

Wow, what a blast from the past. A little over 10 years ago my senior thesis was all about “computer mediated communications” I spent a lot of time in chat rooms doing research.

Habermas was a huge point of reference for me and in fact his “Reason and the Rationalization of Society” still sit on my desk at work (mostly to make me look smart).

I imagine as a scholar and philosopher it would be hard to stay on top these emerging trends for as many years as Habermas has. They change much faster than institutions of higher education can keep up with them.

Greets -
I feel myself at a disadvanted; much more at home with MIL-SPEC tech_docs (Look Ma! I completed FMECA!!) … lacking honed scholastic skills. (Oh, did I get my elbows up there? *grin*)

I was drawn to this post by a tweet by dweinberger tagged #habermas … like a fish to water in a deep sense.
The works of Jurgen Habermas have been with me for years. (AJ Ayer I left behind.) Alongside Paulo Freire (“Education for Critical Consciousness”, not “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”) and Matthew Fox (famous for “On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style” (1976), but I’m partial to “A Spirituality Named Compassion and The Healing of the Global Village; Humpty Dumpty and Us”), he has reminded me of our fundamental humanity. (I can say that Fukayama dignifies intellect, but when reading his work I Skinner’s behaviourism keeps rising to front of mind.)
This to say why I’m rising to the point here and now.

The point I’m taking on (I’ve begun to essai a fuller expression at my “Many2Many”) is that we have failed to grasp … what … not “the nettle” … more like we’ve failed to grasp, say, the rose … as sign and symbol.
A technocratic appreciation of exchange (may we say “intercourse”?), however veiled by hi-falutin sophistry or the cant of aspiration values, diminishes participants’ humanity by devaluing the communicative gesture. We can, as I’m sure we’re all aware, engage in parallel soliloques.

It was (long story / short) while happening to have both Habermas’ “Discourse Ethics” and John Willinsky’s recently released book on the OpenAccess project open both together and in mind at once that my three decades of work on what I call “participatory deliberation” (“group discernment”, anyone?) veered off, away from the techniques of Semantic Web and the methodologies of concept mapping and I found myself with a foundationally new design. New like Socrates teaching the slave boy in Phaedrus. (Teach? But to elicit … edu.care … Freire’s instructions to “agents of extension”!) New like Hegel and Marx with the dialectic. And *drum roll please!!* new like Hesse’s glasperlenspiel.

“Information” contra “data” … and the subjectivity of narrative we should hallow falls through the distributed middle.

Discourse … dialectic … subjectivity … no matter how entertaining, nonsense is merely self-referential, while human discourse is ?what? fractal.

So … this clumsy blurt from a silly old man.

and greetings to those here assembled

ever-playfully yours
and truly
ben

10 - Richard

Does anyone understand how the social linguistic turn in Habermas fit in with his politics? Habermas’ politics was formed prior to the linguistic turn, so what exactly is the relationship between the two? In Chomsky, his politics follows from his general linguistic view as the latter is closely tied to Chomsky’s view of human nature. But what of Habermas? Was his political view gelled and his social linguistic turn came after the fact as something that fits his politics?

This is a helpful anecdote and analysis of Habermas for me, mainly because a) it is parallel to my preference for the pragmatic over the obtuse and b) it cuts out a path of inquiry for future scholars. I interacted with Habermas in my dissertation on “the postsecular” in American novels mainly because Habermas’s orientation toward religion and religious rhetoric has changed, evolved into a more nuanced take on the issue. Perhaps the same thing can still happen re: his orientation to communication and digital culture.

12 - jernejpro

Much (perhaps too much) has been written in scholarly journals both regarding Habermas’s early work in relation to the Internet and his latter conceptualization of deliberative democracy, which is directly connected to the public sphere and public opinion. Several empirical analyses have also been carried out (see for example: http://www.scribd.com/doc/62969660/Oblak-Prodnik-Trbi%C5%BEan-Deliberation-and-Online-Participation).

I do feel there is a need to take a more materialist approach when debating the influence and possibilities brought and opened up by the Internet. It would be sensible to stop taking it out of the wider social context and recognize that the asymmetries have been growing in the last couple of decades and the Internet did little to mitigate this. On the contrary, it could be even claimed that digitalization to some extent helped to widen these gaps and intensify concentration (see for example Hindman’s empirical analysis in The Myth of Digital Democracy and basically any political-economic analysis of the Net).

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