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Habermas on the Internet (in more ways than one)

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.

To begin with, I would take issue with David's rather one-sided comment on Jean's blog that

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:

  1. Many researchers are in the process of analysing very carefully exactly what this will mean, even if no final answers have as yet emerged (nor are likely to emerge - let's not kid ourselves that there's some 'final truth' out there to be found).
  2. More fundamentally, I don't think it's possible any more to make a reasonable argument that the rise of networked, many-to-many media is not affecting the shape and structure of the public sphere as it may have existed during the mass media age. Claims that the mass media have entirely lost their power are exaggerated (and often arise from wishful thinking), to be sure, but any belief that nothing, or nothing significant, has changed with the advent of popular, decentralised, networked many-to-many communication forms is just as mistaken.
  3. To make the point that the rise of the Internet and other such media forms does significantly affect patterns of communication and the public sphere has nothing whatsoever to do with technological determinism, except for a very small section of the researcher community. Very few people are claiming that these networked media forms will inherently improve society (Benkler, for example, very clearly outlines the dangers as well as the opportunities which lie ahead); instead, many researchers outline ways in which such media can be (and in some cases, are) used in what can be described as positive ways. Such research sometimes embraces a position of advocacy - arguing in favour of such positive uses of technology - but this is not at all the same as technological determinism as it also clearly recognises that positive effects will only emerge if informed choices about the application of technologies are made by their users. It is the social uses of available technologies which are, as always, key.

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.

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You have slightly misunderstood/misquoted me here. If you look at my work I am critically involved in trying to untangle the gordian knot of online networked publics - I certainly don't just dismiss them. However, I don't think it is fair to criticise Habermas for his work when he has bracketed out technology from communication for analytical puposes (i.e. placed it in the sphere of instrumental reason). None of us can write Universal theory, and clearly when someone like Benkler tries to do so in The Wealth of Networks, he comes across as completely spellbound to the promise of new technology - always a danger in any kind of New Media research project.

Well, I guess we'll have to disagree here. On evidence from Wealth of Networks, I just don't see that 'spellbound' view in Benkler's work. He discusses the potential for new forms of communication and collaboration which is available if new technologies are used in certain ways, but he also spends quite an amount of time discussing the many obstacles and dangers along the way. I think to describe this as being spellbound is to mistake optimism (and yes, enthusiasm) for blind faith.

As for Habermas, well - again, if he wants to bracket out technology altogether he should be consistent in doing so, and not make an exception for his misplaced and misleading comments about Internet-based communication. But beyond this, I think it may also be time to ask whether such a bracketing-out is still appropriate today. I'll put the argument this way: at the height of the mass media age, all mainstream media forms were essentially one-to-many media, broadcasting information from the centre to the periphery and thereby ideally creating an informed public; these media provided what Habermas calls the "virtual stage" of political communication, acting out (to stick with the metaphor) political deliberation. The public sphere model in its classic formulations is entirely adequate to describe this environment - and because of the relatively uniform shape of all mainstream media, perhaps it was appropriate to bracket out the analysis of the technologies which these media relied on.

Today, though, the media environment looks markedly different; the media technologies which are in use do constitute an important factor that affects practices, patterns, and flows of communication. Centralised one-to-many and decentralised many-to-many media are in far more direct competition with one another; they allow different actors to participate on the virtual stage; and indeed they undermine the existence of one or a small number of central virtual stages by adding the potential for a multiplication and/or fragmentation of venues. Again, to say so isn't technological determinism (at various points, pamphleteering, amateur radio, or the telephone were or could have been used as effective many-to-many media in competition with the mainstream one-to-many model, too, even if they turned out not to fulfill that role in the long term; conversely, there was and still is no guarantee that the Net couldn't similarly be sidelined to an auxiliary role) - it's an empirical fact derived from observing current usage practices.

So, I'd suggest it's time to open the brackets - in the changes of public communication experienced in recent times, we are experiencing a clash of pretty fundamentally different communications models which are based on different approaches to utilising their underlying communications technologies. These differences need to be included in the analysis - we can't afford to turn a blind eye to them.

Benkler never explains his normative position. Why is new technology 'better'? Why is it better than the mass media... there is no... connection of the dots. You are left hanging on the only thing that is better about the new technologies are that they are better. Not very satisfying as a theory.

For Habermas he explicitly links communicative rationality to a process by which a society can articulate itself to those in power. The danger of a loss of this connection is the Legitimation Crisis and eventual fall of the democratic polity. Now, it is all very well seeking a correspondence theory as a best fit to new technology - and indeed many new media scholars attempt to describe the differences between mass and networked media. But it something again to tell us why it is better without fitting it into a normative theory - and indeed (if we're going to criticise Habermas) connect it to wider questions of political legitimacy and democracy.

More communication is not better communication. Many-to-many does not mean better governance. And most importantly, we have a historical dimension to the way in which our democratic societies function, the public sphere operates, for good or bad, within a certain democratic politics - and without a wider (normative) claim to a new politics - say radical democratic politics or direct democracy or whatever - we have to be careful assuming that the technology will transform the bargain between power and democracy.

So the question remains how can you measure the 'better' of networked politics. Fine - describe the difference - that is fair enough. But the moment you want to say better, well then we are in the murky waters of political theory and normative claims and then the technology is *not* so important as we can and should abstract away from it. In other words, what is it that we want from democracy, freedom and political life?