Blog 7: The Changing Public Sphere

Habermas and Castelles are two scholars who think critically about how society and social networks overlap in our modern world. Habermas writes specifically about the public sphere, which he defines as the “nexus between public life and civil society.” Depicted in the figure below, the public sphere is a space where all people in society are provided the opportunity to engage in conversations and debates that are in the public interest, without being influenced by the state. However, these debates are ultimately an important and integral facet of democracy, and therefore influence the state.

Though the ideal public sphere is open to all regardless of social class, wealth, power, etc.; Habermas claims that access to the sphere varies, as does an individual’s degree of autonomy within it. Further, he warns of the deterioration of the public sphere as organizations are now taking the role of individuals, and media is turning information into a product to be sold. As a result, the public sphere is slowly becoming more closed and restricted.

Castells, takes a more optimistic outlook on the public sphere, crediting the rise of network society for the revitalization of the public sphere. From his point of view, a network society, is one in which communication is multi-dimensional and multi-directional, not limited by time or space. This is largely due to the role of technology, which decentralizes the power in society and gives access to a broader population. Additionally, it removes the requirement for people to be in a certain place at a certain time to hold power and have input. Due to these advancements in communication, he claims that more individuals have access to the public sphere, and actively engage in it. Examples of this active engagement are the online movements such as #lovewins, a movement which ultimately influenced policy during the summer of 2015. At a more local level, we see movements such as the Richmond Teachers for Social Justice who are similarly using online platforms to advocate for educational equity (see here).

Thus, largely as a result of enhancements in technology, the network society is known for new forms of time and space (timeless time and space of flows) that allow for democracy in action like the aforementioned examples. Given this idea, Castells claims that network society leads to a more connected, productive, open-minded and accepting society. However, his critics claim that his ideas are utopian. In my opinion, though utopian, I agree with Castells that these changes will improve the lives of various people. Though inequity in access still exists, and some voices will continue to hold more weight than others (celebrities, politicians, social media influences, etc.); I believe that any movement towards giving people voice has the potential to produce good.

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