[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Fri Jul 7 23:01:58 EDT 2006

The liberatory nature of sociable media with regard to politics had not
been sufficiently mapped in terms of pros and cons before Benkler¹s ³The
Wealth of Networks.² He delineates the constantly resurfacing
"ready-made answers" that Tiziana refers to and responds in depth. 

Tiziana offers a succinct bird¹s eye view, a blueprint of this polka of
arguments that could play on ³shuffle.² She writes:

"The answers can only be: yes (it has been demonstrated, it is
constantly been demonstrated in thousands of ways as trebor has
remarked); no (it cannot constitute a pure opposition because its
implication in oppressive modes of governmental and economic domination
is also clearly observable, whether it is about surveillance or
marketing); and yes and no at the same time (it is both, so the question
is how to amplify the liberating potential in ways that sidestep its
oppressive one)."

While I agree that this dynamic jumps into place, I think that an
analysis that looks for more specificity and actual examples of
technologies will make it more difficult for our subject positions to
simply "fall into place" in a Pavlovian manner.  

It is important to see that we are not talking about an imaginary future
here. Speculating about the future is different from noticing what is
going on around us. Future talk easily becomes mixed up with
techno-utopianism or its scared counterpart. And let me also be
absolutely clear that I think that networked and embodied experience
increasingly converges.      

Tiziana-- "The mass today: a field of dispersion. Yes, ok, one can
produce all this information about the war which is not there in the
mainstream media [...], but this has no impact overall because the mass
disperses the potential active effect."

It depends on what you mean by ³active effect.²

"Fragmentation of attention and discourse... the ubiquity of information
and the absence of the mass media [are] condensation points [that] will
impoverish public discourse by fragmenting it. There will be no public
sphere. Individuals will view the world through millions of personally
customized windows that will offer no common ground for political
discourse or action, except among groups of highly similar individuals
who customize their windows to see similar things." (Benkler, p.234)

The large scale, chaotic, Fordist, and uninformed masses that you refer
to are socialized into systemic submission, I agree sadly though that
leaves little or no room for hope. If revolution is what you really mean
by ³active effect,² then, yes, I am doubtful about the extent to which
sociable media can aid this process. 

Jurgen Habermas always stressed that "the importance of a vital and
functioning Öffentlichkeit, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from
the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organizations
that represent public opinion and interest groups, to counter these
developments and to ensure a pluralist democratic debate in an open
society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media." (Boeder)

But in March 06 Habermas stated that:

"Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of
communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on
intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the
less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens
the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an
anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information,
allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues
and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the
growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized
access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by
intellectuals lose their power to create a focus." (Jürgen Habermas
03/09/06: acceptance speech for Bruno Kreisky Prize)



To what extent does it matter if February 15, 2003 did not stop the war?
Anti-war activists like Lucy Lippard told me many stories about their
fight against the war in Vietnam. May Stevens, another artist and
activist was not shy about her contribution: ³We stopped the war in
Vietnam!² I took them ten years. 

And 02/15/03 witnessed a perhaps more broad-based movement than the
unfolding of the anti-war efforts against Nixon.   

³MySpace² is not the battleship ³Potemkin.² People will not protest in
the streets and then take over the factories and offices, and finally
throw the Zar and his kin out of the Hermitage (in Argentina or
Venezuela-- yes, but not in Switzerland and the United States any time

Blogger is not a sleeper cell. Not at all. But something is happening
that adds novel aspects to the networked public sphere.
The sheer mass of people who take to the Web to speak about their lives,
their concerns, their anger, their frustrations creates a new level of
online sociality that has to be reckoned with. People do connect.
Obviously that is no new news but the massification of online sociality
is political due to its participatory nature. This surely changes a
culture that is otherwise deeply rooted in lonestar individuals who want
to make it on their own, and give a damn about the group.  

The next argument that many would raise is that of fragmentation and
information overload. Both are not significant problems because people
found ways to filter. They aggregate blogs, on their handhelds or a
desktop computer; they join small concentrated groups. 

"This body of literature on network topology suggests a model for how
order has emerged on the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the
blogosphere. The networked public sphere allows hundreds of millions of
people to publish whatever and whenever they please without
disintegrating in to an unusable cacophony, as the first-generation
critics argued, and it filters and focuses attention without re-creating
the highly concentrated model of the mass media that concerned the
second-generation critique." (Benkler, p.253)
Charlie counters that "it seems ... that blogs and other such means need
to be a lot more than merely a corrective to conventional mass media, if
they are going to produce a substantially different kind of public
sphere. Otherwise they risk both merely shoring up the status quo and
becoming an excuse for tolerating the increasingly craven mass media,
'it doesn't matter that Fox/The New York Times/the BBC don't report
[fill in atrocity/scandal here] because some blog will deal with it'.

What Charlie demands is already in place. It's not the vague future,
it¹s not imagined; it¹s not barely emerging; it¹s not a fad but a fact.
Sociable media don't function as quasi-cathartic substitute but instead
they force commercial mass media to deal with destabilizing truths.
Trent Lott is just one, small example.

The blogosphere actualizes what Indymedia set out to do but never (or
rarely) managed: to influence the commercial mass media, to get news
items into the commercial mass media. This happens, and I can at least
confidently speak for the US, ...all the time.   

Sociable web media already dominate a novel kind of (not necessarily
progressive) public sphere. If the mind of ³the people,² the ³masses² is
represented by what we find on MySpace... we can kiss ourselves
goodnight. People are motivated to participate by hormones, challenge,
the desire for knowledge, competition, altruism, community
identification and much much more. 

But it's hard to ignore the 7.7 million college students for whom
Facebook is a verb now and they do it daily. Just a few more numbers:
social networking sites attracted 45% of active Internet users in North
America in April 2006 alone (MySpace: 38.4 million unique users,
Blogger: 18.5 million unique users, YouTube: 12.5 million unique users).
YouTube has 60.000 uploads a day now. There are thousands and thousands
of new blogs every day. Some leftist superstar weblogs receive more
daily visitors than a TV station called Fox News (you may have heard of

That's not exactly peanuts. The digital divide arguments by critics that
would surely follow here can be at least in part be addressed by the
explosive use of cell phones in the developing world. In Uganda,  where
electricity is indeed a problem, people simply pay on a stand in the
market-- it costs a few cents to get their cell phone charged.  

"Greetings from the 3.1 billion people of China" 

"Future Mobile: Africa"


In North America youth drifts away from TV screens. They get their news
online, they watch movies on the computer and of course they play games,
and listen to music online. We preserve our memories online now (from
high school year books to photos of romance). A few examples of sociable

http://english.ohmynews.com/, http://boingboing.net/,
http://archive.org/, http://digg.com/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/,
http://slashdot.org, http://www.blogtopsites.com/,
http://www.current.tv/, http://www.flickr.com/, http://www.gather.com/,
http://www.last.fm/, http://www.myspace.com/, http://www.newsvine.com/,
http://www.ourmedia.org/, http://www.technorati.com/,

All this speaks to quantity. What about quality? Andreas¹ post and also
the recent weird "Digital Maoism" essay by Jaron Lanier addressed that

"The qualitative change is represented in the experience of being a
potential speaker, as opposed to simply a listener and voter. It relates
to the self-perception of individuals in society and the culture of
participation they can adopt. The easy possibility of communicating
effectively into the public sphere allows individuals to reorient
themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and
participants in a conversation. The way we listen to what we hear
changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we
observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take
these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for
public communication. This change affects the relative power of the
media. It affects the structure of intake of observations and views. It
affects the presentation of issues and observations for discourse. It
affects the way issues are filtered, for whom and by whom." (Benkler,

The many people who become media authors are the quality;
the fact that so many people are activated constitutes a qualitative

Technologies are indeed not inherently charged up with liberatory
spirit. From the telegraph, to the telephone and the radio, technologies
are never inherently good or evil. It depends how we use our own devices
in line with or contra to the intentions of their inventors. The
printing press was never solely a tool for social change (Rupert Murdoch
could attest to that) and yet it supported revolutions. 

If mobile devices have a special role to play in all this, I¹m not sure. 
Be doubtful about it, but acknowledge that very concrete changes were
made already in the Phillipines, where SMS was instrumental. 

How does all this change the way we navigate the city? How does it
relate to architecture? Perhaps some locative scholars, architects,
activists, and artists have to join this round of conversations now?  

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