Re-examining The Public Sphere

A brief consideration

Recent attention to fake news, social media hacking and data privacy invites a re-examination of the “public sphere,” an idea studied by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas to describe the virtual space in which individuals and authorities can discuss matters of “public” interest.

His described an exchange of ideas made possible first through general literacy and later through an expansion of “mass media,” fuelled by the business community’s need for accurate news and the growing requirements of democracy.  His 1962 work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was foundational in establishing serious academic study of media and journalism, and he anticipated the blurring distinctions between public and private life.

As elegantly and comprehensively as the concept serves to describe the complexity of “public opinion” and the interdependence of changing social, legal, political and cultural institutions (and their output), it’s rarely mentioned today by those of us paid to help navigate it.

I suspect this has to do with his ambivalence toward the commercialization of the sphere (he wasn’t wrong) and the powerful influence of marketing as a primary force in shaping public life. Many advisors prefer “communications” over “public relations,” partly I think out of a desire to move beyond old-fashioned descriptions and partly to escape the taint of those who’ve worked manipulate opinion through spin, obfuscation or outright lying.

There is also the atomizing effects of personal technology. As we create our own personal universes through our mobile devices, is there such a thing as a public sphere?  Hasn’t it been supplanted by billions of individual bubbles?

My opinion: the sphere has been transformed again.  First it encircled a few privileged property owners; later, vast new classes of participants. Now it envelops, or will soon, just about everyone with access to power and a signal.  The impact(s) will be enormous.

Worth further study, in my opinion, and another look at the Public Sphere, 3.0.

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