During a recent discussion on the issue of diplomacy in the information age, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, I got to mulling over the idea of the transnational public sphere. An interesting recent paper out of Europe by Jens Steffek focuses on the emergence of this transnational public sphere and its ability to successfully pressure public institutions for greater accountability and better governance. I believe new communication technologies have amplified this sphere's scope and scale.
But the question that then arises is this: does the very force that enables and empowers the transnational public sphere also degrade the quality of deliberation upon which it depends to function effectively? In a globally networked information environment, public opinion can coalesce in the blink of an eye, fed by multiple information sources both credible and non-credible. Can a transnational public sphere truly be an effective force for better governance if it is not backed by genuinely informed debate and deliberation? What separates a transnational public sphere from a transnational mob?
For me, these questions are intentionally provocative; I tend to think of the vibrancy of the transnational public sphere in normative terms, particularly as it relates to good governance outcomes. But the media is not always a public sentinel; civil society is not always a thoughtful voice for reform; and public opinion is not always measured and deliberative. Moreover, given the rapid evolution of information and communication technologies, the complexity of these interrelationships seems bound only to intensify. For those of us in the business of promoting good governance, it's worthy of additional thought.
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