The Evolution of the Public Sphere

According to German Philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the public sphere is the middle ground between the state and the people. This neutral space according to Habermas is an integral part of democracy. Individuals within this space (primarily physical) come together as a public to openly discuss matters of public concern, which in turn forms a public opinion. This space is open to all and does not matter on characteristics such as class and ideally is universally accessible to all. This is how the public sphere thrives. According to Habermas, the public sphere is weakening due to the power of the public which now includes powerful organizations. These organizations have influence. This influence works against the public sphere by infusing political agenda and commercial power via the media that biases the public’s debate and ultimately the public’s opinion (Introduction to Sociology, 2016b).

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One of the reasons the public sphere is fighting to survive is because of the rise of technology and specifically communication technology in a digital age. Socialized communication based on internet networks is what Manuel Castells (2008) refers to as the “Network Society”. This network society is becoming the new public sphere. Societal debate according to Castells has shifted from a national to a global communication of networks and from a physical space to an internet and wireless space. The difference in a network society is that the social networks are driven by electronic communication which he considers “democracy in action”. This new society of information flows can use the internet to disrupt the power dynamics (Introduction to Sociology, 2016a).

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As mentioned earlier, public discourse and shared opinions has shifted from a physical to a virtual interconnected network. This shift has created a change in the way information is shared from a linear to a non-linear hyperconnected and pervasive public sphere. This has made for a new set “rules” in which information is shared, how much an individual has access to information, and the amount of knowledge one if able to gain (Complexity Labs, 2017). The below YouTube video is an amazing insight into the evolution towards the information revolution that Castells speaks of. It really put into perspective just how much our networks and communication has shifted and how influence spreads and an individual’s prominence within a network is gained.

Since we can virtually be in several places at the same time, what implications does this new form of social organization hold? One of shifts we have already seen taken form is through the educational system. Online courses for both higher education and k-12 education especially in the United States has seen a societal shift to online learning. Exchange of information through virtual classrooms, blogs, and even social media has shifted the way educators teach and students learn. The access of remote learning has been a benefit to students who work full-time jobs or live in rural areas. However, are we sacrificing learning for convenience? It depends on the level of engagement that both the teacher and the learner bring. This can be said for both the physical meeting space and the virtual meeting space. Whether we are choosing to engage in on-ground learning or online, we still have access to our teachers 24/7 as learners. This communication happens via email, telephone, or even social media platforms. This information revolution has and will continue to shape many other forms of our society such as government, health, and national relations. These changes are neither good nor bad, they are just the “new normal” of our everyday lives as humans. These complex relationships embedded within society are creating new social institutions that will continue to shape and reform our current political economy and the world as we know it.

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References

Castells, M. (2008). The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks,

and Global Governance. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social 

Science, 616, 78-93

Complexity Labs. (2017). Network Society Short Field. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUT4B3au5h4&t=669s

Introduction to Sociology. (2016a). Castells and the Network Society. YouTube. Retrieved from:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLF5J8Y5zyg

Introduction to Sociology. (2016b). Habermas & the Public Sphere. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PzTyNe4tP4

One thought on “The Evolution of the Public Sphere

  1. We are at the very beginning of these changes…the sand is shifting beneath our feet faster than we can measure. I think we are merely coping with change right now…what our social systems look like when we are fully digital, I can’t even imagine!

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