The public sphere is defined by philosopher & sociologist Jurgen Habermas as the intersection between public life and civil society. This sphere is a safe haven where discussion can take place and public opinion can be ascertained without the influence of the state, for the betterment of society as a whole. Think of a town forum where all citizens are invited and there is no one who’s thoughts or feelings are more important than another.
Ideally everyone is able to air their grievances without fear of retribution. This, however, has not traditionally been the case. The public sphere has been barricaded, in that only those who have been privileged with access to higher education and social class may have entered. Over recent decades these barriers have been chipped at slowly and untiringly by social movements such as suffrage and civil rights. Though these fights still continue globally today, they have had many victories. Habermas argues that the ground that has been gained by these movements towards equality has been undermined by recent decreases in individuality and the proliferation of collectivist ideals.
In the wake of our transition from the industrial to information age the network society has risen. Networks are dynamic, multidimensional entities that serve as vectors for social interaction. According to renowned sociologist Manuel Castells, the term network society describes a society which is powered by information communications technology. In this society capitalism is no longer centered on the production of goods and the execution of services but instead knowledge is truly all powerful. This information-based economy has transformed the concept of consumerism globally. Habermas argued that the information-based culture industry is susceptible to the influence of behind the scenes power brokers who drive the new capitalism by controlling funding. Specifically, he states, the media which is responsible for facilitating democracy by informing the public on matters of interest has become corrupted.
However, in thanks to the expansion of networks and the increase in connectedness communication has become more and more decentralized, contrasting traditional hierarchical systems. Castell has a positive interpretation on the effect of changes in social structure due to a networked society. He believes that this interconnectedness allows for cultural bridges to be built that transcend the constraints of proximity and time. In Castell’s opinion, this is of upmost importance especially with recent increases of social movements aimed at fighting oppression. The availability of communication technologies has empowered these groups that would have otherwise been stomped out by historical institutions like a rogue flame.
I would argue that due to changes in culture caused by the onset of the information age the public’s reliance on traditional media forms such as newspapers and televised syndicates has decreased. In fact, the public and media, in many instances, have become one and the same thanks to popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This new form of social organization increases availability of access and holds potential to shine light on those who are treated unjustly. However, whether this new form of social organization is more advantageous, due to increased exposure of issues, or disadvantageous, due faulty regulation and lessened means of validation, is purely situational. Meaning that whether these changes are for the good or bad depends on how power gained from network systems is distributed and used. I am optimistic in concerns to the outlook of an increasingly networked society; I believe that we are moving closer towards creating a platform where in equality can thrive. Fear has been noted as the primary instrument of oppression. Togetherness, true solidarity, is the adversary of this oppression and information communication has become the bridge that brings us to a place where we might find that utopian public sphere. Social science, science in general, is tasked with identifying three things; problems, their causes and solutions. Networks and social platforms are ground zero, where through both debate and collaboration we can make strides toward bettering the lives of all, despite race, religion, gender or ethnicity.