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Public Sphere

In the custody of angst

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It has been building up for months… as events and data points have mounted. Now, in the global circles that I move in both physically and intellectually what people are experiencing can be summed up in one phrase and one phrase only: utter bewilderment. People are asking: What is happening to the world? Universities, schools, workplaces are organizing counselling and venting sessions. Families, particularly extended families, are being sundered by divisions over preferences in public affairs. The feeling persists that global affairs might have taken a dark turn, perhaps irretrievably. People look at the future with dread. They look at the global calendar of significant mass decisions and ask plaintively: Where is the next shock going to come from? Others, in utter despair, have given up all hope. They forecast a series of dominoes falling…and crashing.

In other words, we now have multitudes in the overmastering claws of angst. Existentialist philosophers describe angst as an unavoidable and ever present disquiet or dread or anxiety about life, the individual life. For, each human being on earth knows that tragedy is potentially just around every corner. There is so much about our lives that we cannot control and we know only too well that life can suddenly go awry. However, in this essay I use angst in a connected but slightly broader sense, as in the top definition of the word that Google offers: “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.”

The question is: why are so many people angst-ridden? I would argue that we have to look beyond particular events since the condition has been created by a series of political developments and decisions around the world.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

 
The Internet
Global Governance Monitor

The Internet has revolutionized communication and radically altered the conduct of business, politics, and personal lives. Information is now widely available and shared through instant message, email, and social media. Businesses can operate internationally with virtually no delay, enabling previously unimaginable opportunities such as providing medical advice across oceans. Moreover, the embedding of sensors, processors, and monitors in everyday products links the physical and virtual worlds, expanding vast streams of data and creating new markets. The Internet has also altered the relationship between governments and societies. Low-cost, nearly ubiquitous communication platforms allow citizens to mobilize and build transnational networks. The speed of communication can make governments more accountable, and open-data initiatives enable the participation of nongovernmental organizations and increased transparency. Though the technology has facilitated unprecedented economic growth, increased access to information, and delivered innovative solutions to historic challenges, the expansion of the Internet has also brought challenges and vulnerabilities.
 

The 2016 Brookings Financial and Digital Inclusion Project Report, Advancing equitable financial ecosystems
Brookings Institution

The 2016 Brookings Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) evaluates access to and usage of affordable financial services by underserved people across 26 geographically, politically, and economically diverse countries. The 2016 report assesses these countries’ financial inclusion ecosystems based on four dimensions of financial inclusion: country commitment, mobile capacity, regulatory environment, and adoption of selected traditional and digital financial services. The 2016 report builds upon the first annual FDIP report, published in August 2015. The 2016 report analyzes key changes in the global financial inclusion landscape over the previous year, broadens its scope by adding five new countries to the study, and provides recommendations aimed at advancing financial inclusion among marginalized groups, such as women, migrants, refugees, and youth.

Quote of the Week: Jürgen Habermas

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Jurgen Habermas"Today, however, the increasingly high-pitched appeal by politicians to "our values" sounds ever emptier – alone the confusion of "principles", which require some kind of justification, with "values", which are more or less attractive, irritates me beyond all measure. We can see our political institutions being robbed more and more of their democratic substance during the course of the technocratic adjustment to global market imperatives. Our capitalist democracies are about to shrink to mere façade democracies."

- Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher whose work focuses on the political domain and rationality. He is best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere.  Associated with the Frankfurt School, his work also focuses on the foundations of critical social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, human freedom within modern society, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics-- particularly German politics. 

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

Quote of the Week: Jürgen Habermas

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Jurgen Habermas"Since the secularization of state authority, religion can no longer meet the requirement of legitimizing political rule. As a result, the burden of integrating citizens shifts from the level of social to the level of political integration, and this means: from religion to the fundamental norms of the constitutional state, which are rooted in a shared political culture. These constitutional norms, which secure the remainder of collective background consent, draw their persuasive power from the repeatedly renewed philosophical argumentation of the rational law tradition and political theory."

- Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher whose work focuses on the political domain and rationality. He is best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere.  Associated with the Frankfurt School, his work also focuses on the foundations of critical social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, human freedom within modern society, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics-- particularly German politics. 
 

Civil Society and the Dangers of Monoculture: Smart New Primer from Mike Edwards

Duncan Green's picture

Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.

Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as

  • ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
  • The Good Society: a good thing in itself
  • A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)

"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)

"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)

"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)

Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.

2014: The Graveyard of Fevered Hopes?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The year that is ending in two weeks has exhibited two sobering characteristics. First, it has been marked by apocalyptic violence (the massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan being the latest outrage). Second, it has been marked by pressures on communication freedom, and the relentless squeezing of civic spaces. The violence we all know about; for it seems to be kicking off everywhere. But the causes are legion; the politics in each case is bewilderingly complex. So, we’ll leave these alone and hope for the best. But we might usefully reflect, as the year closes, on what is happening with national public spheres and the emerging global public sphere.

There is a narrative of hope and freedom about the global communication context. That narrative celebrates the mobile wave and the astounding spread of information and communication technologies. It talks about how wonderful all this is for voice, for enlightenment, for freedom. Look, we are told, see all those cool young kids with their fancy gadgets, social media skills, and their ability to launch collective action eruptions, even revolutions! See how admirable and hopeful all this is, we are told. And, yes, events have often backed up the fevered hopes and dreams, even this year. Yet, as the year ends, the overwhelming sense one gets is that dark and powerful forces are counterattacking. They are certainly not on the ropes. Let’s look at the particulars:

In Praise of Cranks and Contrarians

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I hope you have been fortunate enough to meet a few of these. They live amongst us, but they are really an archetypal category: The Outsider. Our settled views on the great issues of the day, our rules and norms, our codes of conduct, all these things annoy them. They mock us. They dispense rudeness with great liberality. They are stubborn, self-willed and ferociously argumentative. They dress as they please. They behave as they please. They dance to the rhythms of drums that the rest of us cannot hear. They annoy, even madden us; yet, every healthy community needs them; every truly diverse and vigorous public sphere needs them, as well.

Cranks are eccentrics. They are capricious in behavior or appearance. And they are almost always contrarians: whatever the majority opinion is, they are against it. Loudly. Vehemently. Yet there is one fundamental reason why we should not only tolerate but celebrate the cranks and contrarians in our midst: every major shift in public opinion started as a view propagated by a few bloody minded contrarians, boldly, even recklessly, taking on the received or conventional wisdom of the day.  We often credit huge social movements for a lot of the progress we have made as human beings, but before the social movements formed crucial path-clearing work was done by tough, rock-ribbed eccentrics and contrarians.

“I contain multitudes": Is Logical Consistency an Illusory Ideal?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
-Walt Whitman
 

The possibility of rational debate and discussion in human affairs remains a stubborn and persistent ideal. This is, I suspect, mainly because we have a lot riding on it. Without the possibility of rational debate and discussion, it would be close to impossible to work in groups, and for the groups to be productive, to get stuff done. Deliberative processes would also be unworkable; and would in fact not exist.  Parliaments and similar legislative assemblies – allegedly the great deliberative forums of liberal constitutional democracy – would not function without some attempt to promote rational debate and discussion. Democracy itself celebrates the ideal. The whole idea of  a public sphere rests on the notion that citizens can meet in the virtual public square-- constituted today by the mass media system in each country– and exchange views on the great public issues of the day, from which process-informed public opinion might emerge, and so on.

Yet, the ideal of rational debate and discussion requires (a) certain personal disciplines, and these disciplines are not easy to practice; and (b) personality traits that are not evenly distributed within any population.

If You Want a Better Media System in Your Country…Build a Movement

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Far too many of the people and organizations working on strengthening media systems in developing countries focus on how to secure funding from donors, preponderantly donors in the West; and they still mostly do the easy stuff, like organizing training seminars for journalists. Too few of them are taking on the real challenges of bedeviling media systems in many transition countries and far less developed ones.

When you focus on donors you have to do what donors are willing to pay for, reality be damned. And when you focus on donors, you have to worry about short term ‘results’, the ‘evidence of impact’ and so on. It is all too tempting to do only what is easy to count and measure. And donor priorities change all the time: the ministers change, the officials change, the lingo changes, the demands change. It is almost always a dizzying ride. Yet the problems facing the media in developing countries, the lacks that prevent them from playing their classic roles as watchdogs, public forums and agenda-setters, are persistent and long-term. Their rhythm is not that of fickle donors.


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