Jean has posted a YouTube video of a recent interview with philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and also links to my recent comments on Habermas's continued refusal to engage meaningfully with the Internet and other networked, decentralised, public many-to-many media and with what they may mean for the future of the public sphere. There's also the start of a little further discussion about how to situate such media within Habermas's theories. I meant to reply directly there, but my response turned out a little lengthy for a blog comment, so I'm posting it here instead.
The problem is one of technological determinism - too many people are running round (i.e. Benkler) declaring the Era of the Networked Public Sphere without carefully analysing what this means in principle.
This is incorrect for a number of reasons:
Now, there's no problem at all in extending Habermas's work to the networked environment in which we increasingly find ourselves - however, as Jean notes, much of this seems to happen "perhaps against his will". David, if you look at some of Habermas's recent speeches (such as the two I refer to in my post), it's simply not true to say that he is "putting technology aside" in his work - instead, recently he seems to be going out of his way to claim that there are very few positive (in the sense of "supporting and extending deliberation in the public sphere") uses for Internet- and Web-based media forms. He does this, as I note, to the point of contradicting himself within the same paper (e.g. where on the one hand, issue publics are not a sign of fragmentation, but then, when they're online, they are). I don't know why he does this, nor do I care to speculate - but I think that this behaviour makes it all the more important for other researchers to go and investigate with an open mind how the public sphere model can be related to (and perhaps adapted to describe) a communications environment which involves a greater range of decentralised, public, many-to-many media.
(I should also point out: I think that the rest of that paper is actually very useful - but you do have to mentally add in many-to-many media yourself in order to complete the picture of the public sphere which Habermas describes there. My argument is not with the concept of the public sphere itself, but with Habermas's refusal to allow the Net and other new media forms to play any meaningful role within it, much less to accept that their use may shift the prevailing patterns of communication flows away from a linear centre-periphery direction.)
Looking at Habermas's recent work (and the responses to it), the Internet is the elephant in the room - the one thing nobody speaks about in order not to undermine what is otherwise a very useful theoretical construct. What's a shame about this is that - I think - public sphere theory can be usefully adapted to a more networked media and communications environment; however, in order to do this, it is necessary to accept that (for better or for worse) the means of communication available to civil society today are not identical to the means of communication twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
Saying this should not be misconstrued as technological determinism; it's a statement of fact, and you should note that I make no claim that the current configuration of communications technologies is any better or worse than those configurations available at any other time in recent history. It is evident, however, that current media forms support a greater volume of decentralised but public many-to-many communication than was possible at the height of the mass media age.
Like many others, I believe that such decentralised but heavily interlinked and networked communication can still support public deliberation within a public sphere, but that that public sphere will look significantly different from that described by Habermas for a mass-mediated environment. No, it's not clear just yet exactly what shape a networked public sphere will have, but it is very clear that it will look different from the centre-periphery model that David describes.
I don't see what an outright dismissal of more decentralised models and a continued call for a centre-periphery model of representative democracy is meant to achieve; it's increasingly impossible to wind back the clock on the changes to our communicational patterns (even if some politicians and the media industries would love to do so). To refuse to investigate how models of the public sphere can be adapted to describe communicative reality today, as Habermas appears to do, to discredit the participants in such communication as "twittering" away without consequence (as David appears to do), and to paint those who do carry out research into these developments as living in a "normative wilderness" just because their model of a networked public sphere is now at the stage comparable to that of Habermas's mass-mediated public sphere model in the 1950s or so, rather than emerging already fully formed, seems rather limited a perspective, and is not one which is likely to make a contribution to our understanding of public communication in the present communicatory environment. Let's not make the mistake of so zealously protecting the Habermasian description of the public sphere that the model becomes fossilised, and is no longer able to change and evolve as that which it is meant to describe also changes and evolves. The public sphere is not a static entity.