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Global Public Sphere

Information is power: Silvio Waisbord on how digital technology changes the public sphere and notions of privacy

Roxanne Bauer's picture
How do digital media affect traditional theories of the “public sphere” and power? Are we living in a modern-day panopticon?

The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.

In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not.  The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online.  Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.   

But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity?  Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.

Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes. 
 
The modern public sphere vs. The online panopticon

The polluters of the public sphere

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Defending Freedom of Speech?As it should, the world is worrying about the pollution of the atmosphere and its deleterious impact on our planet, and efforts to do something about it all are, happily, intensifying. But there are pollutions and polluters of a different kind, and, sadly, there is no global effort as yet to do something about them. I refer to the polluters of national public spheres and the polluters of the global public sphere.

Let’s begin at the country level. What is going on is truly scary. In both developing countries and supposedly mature democracies more and more political leaders are giving themselves the permission to spout incendiary nonsense. Most political communities these days are deeply plural, often multiethnic, multinational or multi-sectarian, or all of the above. It was always understood that if you want peace and harmony in these political communities there are things major leaders or candidates for high office simply do not say; there are lines that they simply do not cross. Now, all these restraints are being sundered in several countries. Major figures are willing to say just about anything no matter how offensive or provocative.

In the supposedly advanced liberal constitutional democracies, the raw competition for power, the pressure of the migrant/refugee crisis, shifts in the composition of the electorate, all these things appear to be leading to an outbreak of demagoguery. There is a race to the bottom as right wingers seek to outbid frankly racist political parties. Rhetorical excesses are undoing the work of many decades in these societies. I refer to hitherto successful efforts to evolve norms of restrained and civil discourse in the public sphere, and to promote rationality in public affairs generally. Now, in more and more of these societies there seems to be a competition to see who can be the most brazen and offensive, to see who can go ‘there’ with the most reckless abandon.

Who Decides What is Acceptable Speech in the Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is free speech a fundamental right and does it have appropriate limits? Pope Francis has provided the most memorable recent attempt at an answer. Yes, there is such a thing as a right to free speech but if you upset people you might have a punch travelling towards your face. But the Pope’s intervention is only one amongst many. In the wake of the recent terrorist outrages in Paris, and the massive responses to it globally, a debate has erupted about the nature of free speech and its appropriate boundaries. It is an intense and global debate, but, as often happens when human emotions are all aquiver, there has been more heat than light. In what follows, I will make an effort to untangle the issues before tackling the question I posed in the heading.

And in doing so, I am going to take two views of free speech. The first is what I call the internal view: free speech considered within the boundaries of specific countries and legal systems. The second is what I call the global view: free speech within the emerging global public sphere.  I begin with the internal view.

Is There a Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the ways in which the world we live in today feels very different from the one we lived in even a decade ago is how ‘connected’ we all feel these days. It does seem that there are issues that we all talk about, personages and celebrities that we all know, and technological means of information sharing and exchange that we all share.  Yet, can we say that one of the consequences of globalization is that we now have a global public sphere, especially now that Fareed Zakaria of CNN calls his talk show ‘The Global Public Square’?

You will recall that a public sphere is a metaphor for a space that still exists in some contexts: the village square, the town hall… a place where people come together to talk about common concerns, a process that leads to the crystallization of public opinion.  Beyond the level of the village or the small town --- situations where most inhabitants can conceivably gather and talk – the public sphere becomes a grand metaphor, but a useful one. As Denis McQuail asserts in his classic text on communication theory, in most national contests today the ‘media are now probably the key institution of the public sphere, and its “quality” will depend on the quality of the media’. [See McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, Fifth Edition, page 566.]