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The Public Sphere Enters Public Discourse

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

Building on Johanna's earlier post on social media, I thought I'd highlight a few points from Clay Shirky's new piece in Foreign Affairs, entitled "The Political Power of Social Media" (users must register). The essay is a thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing discussion about technology's political impact - and it also gives me an opportunity to clarify a few issues regarding my thinking on the Internet and authoritarian regimes.

The Economist has a fairly good take on the article here, noting that Shirky has "squared the circle" by coming around to a nuanced view on the impact of social media, forming a bridge between the techno-optimists, who believe the Internet inherently promotes openness and democracy, and the pessimists, who dissent (a camp in which by implication they place yours truly). I'll get back to that in a minute.
Shirky advocates for an 'environmental' rather than an 'instrumental' view of technology. By this he means that policymakers are wrong to concentrate primarily on specific, instrumental uses of technology in authoritarian countries, including anti-censorship technology and methods to circumvent blocked websites. To do so misses the longer-term, 'environmental' impact that ICTs, and particularly social media, can have on invigorating the public sphere. "Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation," he writes.
While I don't agree with that distinction - to me, they are equally important - I like that he elevates the concept of conversation: it gets us away, finally, from thinking about the Internet as Broadcasting 2.0, as the Economist points out. Conversation means people deliberating in a variety of spaces, both online and off; and this, as CommGAP has long proselytized (even through, as you may have noticed, the name of this very blog), is a crucial component of good governance.
Shirky is not necessarily breaking new ground with his concept of an 'environmental' view of technology; nor will his explanation of the importance of civil society sound fresh to political scientists. However, by reframing the old 'evolution vs. revolution' arguments about the political impact of technology, Shirky has introduced the concept of the public sphere into, well, the public sphere. This, in itself, is of value, particularly for those of us who feel that the public sphere concept is underappreciated in the general discourse on governance and development.
And this is why I must explain my tendency to wince when folks inevitably place me in the camp of the 'pessimists,' as the Economist essentially does in referencing the book I co-authored with Taylor Boas in 2003. In my view, we were simply realists (which I'd define as being clear-eyed and non-deterministic) at a time when most were breathless; the book was published in an era that tended toward anecdotally based, enthusiasm-driven assessments about technology's impact. At any rate, being so labeled has long obscured the fact that I consider it crucially important to support the various components of the public sphere (including independent media, civil society, informed public opinion formation and both technological and non-technological platforms for discourse) in both authoritarian and non-authoritarian countries, as a cornerstone of good governance. In our book's conclusion, in fact, we specifically discuss the more 'environmental' aspects of the Internet's impact (such as improved and responsive e-government and stronger civil societies) that may be less exciting than people-powered revolutions, but perhaps more fundamental to building enduring and stable democratic governance.
In terms of policy impact, the Economist likes Shirky's recommendation that policymakers change their emphasis from one that promotes open international Internet traffic and specific tools to combat censorship, to one that encourages internal communications within authoritarian countries in order to foster the public sphere. I don't necessarily see a conflict between the two goals, and think that they can and do happen alongside each other. The problem, I think, is one of silos: those who work on Internet policy issues tend to focus much more on anti-censorship tools and open Internet traffic, while the efforts of those in the development community to support independent media, civil society and the public sphere fly under the radar. Shirky's essay should help highlight the importance of bringing these two communities into direct conversation with each other; and isn't that, as he points out, what it's all about?

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