Habermas defines the public sphere as the nexus between public life and civil society. The public sphere is a communicative infrastructure where private citizens can debate about important information, where public opinion can influence state decision. In a democratic society, the public sphere is an integral space for free exchange of information, for people with all opinions to come together to discuss and debate without influence from an authoritative state. In agreement with Habermas, a public sphere should be open, critical, and universally accessible.
Now, the public sphere is adapting with the rise of the network society. Defined by Castells, the network society is powered by network information and communication technology, moving from an industrial society to one of a technological base. Castells has an optimistic outlook on the influence of the network society on the public sphere. With information being shared more widely and quickly through electronic devices, more people than ever before are able to participate in the public sphere. Castells also believes that this network society leads to a more connected, productive, accepting, and open-minded global society which is consistent with the characteristics of the public sphere.
However, critics including Habermas are concerned that this unprecedented surge of technology and its influence on our societies could be harmful to the public sphere. Habermas even considers the public sphere to be in decline due to the inclusion of powerful organizations and their influences within the public sphere. Similarly to these organizations having the potential to disrupt the openness of the public sphere, the media may also be a hindrance. With the media being so interwoven in our every day lives through cell phones, television, the internet, etc., the media is extremely influential. The media can be a facilitator of democracy providing members of the public with equal opportunities for information; however, the media may also facilitate in the polarization that the U.S. is currently experiencing. At times of extreme political divide, the public can sometimes get their information from media that tend to lean to one side or another rather than providing unbiased perspectives.
This new form of social organization will be very impactful on many institutions including education, government, health care, and the economy. With information being transmitted quicker than ever and across any geographic distance, people have opportunities to educate themselves less formally and with the access of the internet, questions can be answered within seconds on a mobile device. The media is having stronger influence, perhaps facilitating in the political divide influencing our government and the decisions made at the local, state and federal government. In regard to healthcare, patients are not only accessing their health information through patient portals, they are communicating with their health care providers through these portals as well. And, social media platforms are behaving as mediums for mass marketing, influencing consumers and economic growth.
In regard to these examples, there are pros and cons to both. Information is more widely accessible, giving people the opportunity to learn and develop their thoughts quicker than ever before. But, the opportunities for others to influence these thoughts can also occur just as fast whether through media outlets or social media platforms. This network society can improve the lives of some people, but it could also potentially put people who don’t have this access at a disadvantage, especially disenfranchising already marginalized populations. I appreciate Castells’ optimism of decentralized communications expanding the opportunities of the public sphere. But, I can also see the downside of this new social structure. As members of society, we need to take advantage of this incredible access to information and communication and help facilitate in providing these opportunities of access to as many people as possible, remaining open-minded and vocal in order to sustain a healthy public sphere.