Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as a separate space where informed people debate social and political issues, form public opinion, and influence the state and society. In a democratic society, the public sphere ideally allows for everyone to have access to information and be able to participate equally in discussions. His vision allows for an open public sphere, although the reality might constrain participation for certain segments of society who may not have enough ability or resources. In the past, this became evident in the dominance of the bourgeoisie who came to salons and coffeehouses to discuss societal issues, which largely excluded the working class and sometimes women.
Manuel Castells declared that society has moved from the Industrial Revolution (production of material goods) to the Information Age (knowledge economy). The network society has been enabled by current technologies (such as smartphones and internet). Communication is based on an open structure network, which breaks down some of the traditional social hierarchies and national borders because information flows almost anywhere (China’s state censorship might be a notable exception). Different participants might have different value within the network, such as highly connected individuals.
Castell’s theory operates within the idea of the public sphere by somewhat eliminating time and space. Electronic communication is instantaneous and possible with anyone across the world. It also could used to communicate with individuals or communities, which could known or unknown. However, his perception of “timeless time” may seem like digital networks allow for disruption of the flow of linear time, but I would argue that multi-tasking is not new or unique to the digital age. Time even may gain linear importance in terms of “keeping up” with the latest news and trends. For Twitter, a single tweet might get lost among 6,000 tweets a second if a user doesn’t have many followers (network connectedness) or a particular hashtag isn’t trending. In addition, network theory is compatible with traditional local and in-person networks.
The major effect from the network society has been increased participation and access to information. Want a graduate degree? Take online classes. The federal government has piloted public participation in coding through Github. Politicians get fewer letters and phone calls from constituents, but more emails and contacts from social media. The flow of digital information has increased from a river to a flood, which may be the greatest downside to the digital revolution. Now someone might be able to search online for health symptoms and get hundreds of possibilities from various websites. Dr. Google will present mild possibilities from the common cold to deadly illnesses along with suggestions for folk remedies. Which source do you trust: the Mayo Clinic (based on their brick-and-mortar reputation) or the Wellness Mama blogger?
Castell is onto something that others have suggested: the form of the media matters. Habermas appears mostly concerned about the ability of the mass media to inform the public sphere and act as a good intermediary. Marshall McLuhan (infographic below) also argues that the medium fundamentally affects our ability to communicate. For example, the “tribal era” is characterized by an oral tradition of memorization and listening to storytelling, which is limited to a local community. The print era allows for the dissemination of more materials, but actually limits communication to a one-way exchange of ideas (from print to reader). Television expands the capability of the print era in being able to reach an even larger audience with only slightly more interaction than print (such as telephone interviews or arranging live appearances). The digital age finally expands the ability for participation: either one to one, one to many, or many to many. This is the root cause of why the digital age seems so remarkable to Castell.