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Is There a Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the ways in which the world we live in today feels very different from the one we lived in even a decade ago is how ‘connected’ we all feel these days. It does seem that there are issues that we all talk about, personages and celebrities that we all know, and technological means of information sharing and exchange that we all share.  Yet, can we say that one of the consequences of globalization is that we now have a global public sphere, especially now that Fareed Zakaria of CNN calls his talk show ‘The Global Public Square’?

You will recall that a public sphere is a metaphor for a space that still exists in some contexts: the village square, the town hall… a place where people come together to talk about common concerns, a process that leads to the crystallization of public opinion.  Beyond the level of the village or the small town --- situations where most inhabitants can conceivably gather and talk – the public sphere becomes a grand metaphor, but a useful one. As Denis McQuail asserts in his classic text on communication theory, in most national contests today the ‘media are now probably the key institution of the public sphere, and its “quality” will depend on the quality of the media’. [See McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, Fifth Edition, page 566.]

McQuail’s implied point is that beyond the village square or the town hall in a small town, at the level of the typical nation-state, the public sphere is really constituted by the media system…to the extent that the media system offers a unifying public forum where citizens can get together to discuss the leading public issues and controversies of the day.  As you must have noted, this requirement is not met in many countries today. If you have countries where most citizens still watch the news on the same or just a few television stations (or listen on one or two radio stations) and engage in conversations via the same stations, or read one or two national newspapers – perhaps then the media system can still serve as a unifying public forum, the main site of the imagined public sphere. But given the wild profusion of media outlets in many countries today, and the sheer centrifugal force of digital media, the idea of a unifying public forum is about as current as vinyl long playing records. Audiences are fragmenting, narrowcasting is the order of the day, not broadcasting; and citizens are disappearing into micro-communities where their prejudices are very often reinforced rather than challenged and moderated. It takes a major event these days to make most citizens consume the same news and current affairs content at the same time ---and then discuss it.

So, is there really a global public sphere? The short answer is: not really, with apologies to Fareed Zakaria. If the national public spheres are collapsing into tiny little spheres, the global system is a thousand miles away from evolving a truly global public sphere.  Global media conglomerates like CNN and BBC are trying to provide global forums. Newspapers and magazines with global ambitions exist…like the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune and so on. But if you add their readership and audience figures together they might amount to the size of a small city in India.

Nonetheless, there are at least three hopeful developments. First, modern communication technologies now make it possible for anybody anywhere in the world to find out the best and the latest information on any global issue. You have to make an effort, sometimes a prodigious effort, but the information is there. Second, members of the global elite consume consciously global media. For instance, think about the television stations and the newspapers that top hotel chains make available to international business travelers around the world as well as the tablets, smart phones and laptops that make it possible for you to follow global developments while engaging in international travel.  Finally, the global system now runs thick with more and more truly global policy and advocacy networks. They are dynamic forces, share information, drive the development and enforcement of global norms, and power global activism.

These developments are the reason, I think, that we often feel that there is global public forum out there.

Picture credit: flickr user Combined Media

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In the US, one sometimes hears the expression "all politics are local", which essentially means that the things and issues nearby have the most impact on us, and therefore they are the things we are going to worry about. This local phenomenon is one factor that weighs against a "global square". However, as noted, the means exist for any one to communicate with almost anyone else. On a personal level, one indicator of this is that while I have been blogging only since July, i was amazed to recently discover that I have at least one reader on every continent (excep Antartica)! My belief is that when things are of global concern, we will find the means to have that public square. Thanks!

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