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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


As we approach World Press Freedom Day next Tuesday, May 3, people will reflect on these concerns and assess the nature of press freedom worldwide. The balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy is one that media around the world have covered and will, undoubtedly, continue to cover.

Silvio Waisbord is Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Communication. His most recent books are Reinventing Professionalism: News and Journalism in Global Perspective (Polity), Vox Populista (Gedisa), and the edited volume Media Sociology: A Reappraisal (Polity).

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