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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

How to Insult Your Opponent

Sina Odugbemi's picture

You really should not go around insulting those who take an opposing viewpoint in public debate. The ideal is clear. You treat opponents with respect. You take seriously what they are saying. In responding, you do not cheat, you do not unfairly sum up or characterize what they are saying. You acknowledge facts; you are not entitled to inventing your own facts. Above all, as much as possible, you avoid logical fallacies. You argue logically and cogently. For, that is the only way that the search for truth is advanced, and it is the only way that informed public opinion created. In short, abuse is no argument. Civility in public discourse is a great and worthwhile ideal.

And yet!

Much of public debate and discussion takes the form of invective. It was always thus; and it seems it will always be thus. The culprits, I suppose, are human passions; those self-same unruly horses that carry us to great heights when we want to achieve something worthwhile. We often become so convinced that we are right that we cannot imagine how anyone would disagree. And when we confront opponents who are as certain as we are that they are right something seems to snap. Faces contort. Abuse and spit fly. No matter how often people are told to calm down, commit to logical reasoning, respect facts… nothing seems to work. A huge chunk of public debate on the great issues of the day is characterized by the trading of insults.

Insults must serve a purpose, otherwise how come all public political cultures have them?

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

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

Out in the Open: This Man Wants to Turn Data Into Free Food (And So Much More)
Wired
Let’s say your city releases a list of all trees planted on its public property. It would be a godsend—at least in theory. You could filter the data into a list of all the fruit and nut trees in the city, transfer it into an online database, and create a smartphone app that helps anyone find free food. Such is promise of “open data”—the massive troves of public information our governments now post to the net. The hope is that, if governments share enough of this data with the world at large, hackers and entrepreneurs will find a way of putting it to good use. But although so much of this government data is now available, the revolution hasn’t exactly happened.

Four mobile-based tools that can bring education to millions
The Guardian
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, Nelson Mandela is famed for saying. Yet access to good quality learning is still denied to millions around the world, particularly in developing countries where teaching standards and education facilities are often poor. The ubiquity of mobile phones is presenting educators with a new, low-cost tool for teaching. Here we look at four mobile-based solutions delivering real results for low-income learners.

“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.

Beyond The Reign of Reason?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In liberal political and constitutional thought, the passions are feared and often decried. The constant appeal is to reason: rational thought, rational debate, and rational solutions to problems. Even in the work that we do in CommGAP, the ideas we are committed to include: 

1) Rational debate and discussion in the public sphere (inclusive and democratic) focusing on the leading challenges facing the political community; and

2) Informed public opinion arrived at through a process of open debate and discussion, where relevant information is available to citizens, and all sides to the issue are fully canvassed by proponents. In all that, the appeal is to reason.