Imagine a place where people gather to exchange information and discuss ideas as equals. A place that is characterized by civil engagement, is accessible to all, and exists outside of class, government, or business structures. This is not a scene from a utopian novel; it is what sociologist Jürgen Habermas referred to as the public sphere. The original public spheres were the literary associations, coffeehouses, and salons frequented by the bourgeoisie. They engaged in rational debates and generated shared understandings free from the influence of the government. Habermas believed the ideal public sphere was open and accessible to all and held government and business accountable to the social good.
In his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas discussed the decay of the public sphere. Whereas the press used to play an important part in the public sphere by making information freely accessible, Habermas argued that the media was now part of the problem. In his view, the corporatization of the media blurred the lines between public and private. Political, business, and media institutions infiltrated the public sphere and usurped the power of the common people.
Instead of a deteriorating public sphere, sociologist Manuel Castells sees the promise of an open, unbounded network that gives people more access than ever before. He calls this the network society – a society where technology-based networks are more integral to society’s functioning than institutions. People can have a presence in multiple places at one time and can spend their time on multiple activities at once. In the network society, people are not dependent on institutions for information or service. They can mobilize through their technological networks and impact education, governments, and economies.
We have certainly seen some of the positive impacts of the network society. The Occupy movements showed networks of people standing up to capitalist institutions. In the Movement for Black Lives, Black people are leading demands for structural change to the institutions that have oppressed and killed them for centuries. However, the network society has also facilitated the public regrowth of hate groups such as the white supremacy movement.
Habermas’s critique of the commodification of the press still rings true today, and has grown more relevant as the network society has grown. News sources are neither independent nor unbiased. They are increasingly corporate and political. A large percent of people in the U.S. got at least some of their 2016 presidential election news from social media. Social media sites, however, are not in the public sphere. They are institutions that financially profit off of the spread of news. For example, in addition to the micro-targeted advertising that Facebook routinely sells, the company also embedded Facebook employees within the Trump campaign (Clinton declined a similar offer).
The network society has changed the public sphere, but the changes began long before the growths in technology. In fact, Habermas’s original depiction of public spheres was just as idealistic as Castells’ view of the network society. The working class and other oppressed groups did not frequent the salons. Access to the public sphere has always been constrained by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other characteristics. In the network society, technology has broken down (some) barriers, leveled (some) playing fields, and opened society (for some). People from minoritized races and ethnicities, trans people, and people with disabilities still face barriers to full societal participation. As long as our underlying societal structures reward power, any technology we lay on top will replicate disparity and oppression.
Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
Van Kreiken, R. (2016). Castells and the network society. University of Sydney.