Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Speaking at the #140 Conference part 2

Maybe a more philosophical blog than the usual, but I welcome your feedback and comments on this very first draft of some thoughts that have been brewing before and after the conference:

Thinking about Twitter and what it has done from news reporting of accidents to live accounting of the Iranian resistance movement’s protests, to the bringing together of many folks whom would otherwise not have met, got me thinking about German Philosophy.

In 1962, a philosopher from the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, wrote a paper called, “The Transformation of the Public Sphere”. In it, Habermas argues that the pressures of modernity and the encroachment of Capitalism into every day life meant that spaces where the public could meet freely to debate and discuss politics, culture and society were inevitably getting eroded, weakened and disappearing. Perhaps one of the most obvious forms that I witnessed growing up was the displacement of downtown vibrant businesses and meeting places by the Mall. Malls could regulate their space as it was private property in a manner that a town could not. Capitalism, Habermas argued also infiltrated every aspect of our lives with a form of propaganda in the form of advertising that shaped our mental spaces from public to private, from the good of the greater group to the celebration of the individual.

Habermas articulates the notion of the public as something constructed, even though today we take it for granted. Before Capitalism, the King occupied the space of the "Public" and all the rest were spectators. During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the rest of the population had access to that "public sphere" for the first time since the Greek Democracy.

"Habermas sees the public sphere as developing out of the private institution of the family, and from what he calls the "literary public sphere", where discussion of art and literature became possible for the first time. The public sphere was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one's education and qualification as a property owner. Habermas emphasizes the role of the public sphere as a way for civil society to articulate its interests." (

So the transition to a more privatized society and the corruption of "truth" or the manipulation of facts by the State is a deadly one-two punch to the older more idealized Public Sphere. However, I have been thinking about the effect of Twitter on this equation. Not only do all of us have the opportunity to post thoughts, observations, promotions and reports into this public medium without the intrusion of the State or propaganda machines, but we have recreated the space of the Public in doing so. From the private spaces of our bedrooms, to restaurants, to the workplace we can connect with others across the invisible lines that architecture and our limited time restraints place before us. Twitter, I am arguing is reconstructing a new notion of the Public Sphere from where we can discuss and critique on an International level any State that is of concern, any cultural phenomenon, and "breaking news" as well.

This is a pretty revolutionary idea if you consider that this kind of Public Sphere space was being eroded so greatly by the economic and political forces of the last fifty years. Twitter is using technology, or we are using that Twitter provided technology to redefine our relationships and spaces.


  1. John, Excellent and quite provocative post.

    I am basically in line with the Habermasian critique, but have reservations about the political and cultural implications of the new social media.

    Quickly here are some of my concerns.

    1) The diminishing of traditional news outlets and their printed content, is a grave threat to an informed democracy. I think this is a direct result of the ascendancy of online media.

    2) Twitter contains some very effective information, no doubt, but it is merely a reflection of its users and limited to a very terse format. I fear it represents a dangerous dummying down of the quality information mentioned in item 1) above. But of course that depends on who is using it and how much and in what measure as a replacement of other streams of info.

    3) There was in interesting article Sat in the Post about how lobbyists are using Twitter anonymously to promote various corporate agendas. Can twitter be co opted by capitalism? Of course traditional news outlets, cable, etc. are controlled by various corporations as well. My point is that social media is not immune from the sort of manipulation to which we have grown accustomed.

    4) Take note of the recent SC ruling on "net neutrality". US internet providers have the right to limit bandwidth and censor content, to a greater or lesser extent than their counterparts in ostensibly more repressive societies such as China, etc. That is another issue that gives me sometimes sleepless nights.

    Anyway, again a great post and glad you are doing it!

  2. Very interesting. Makes me think of Joseph Schumpeter and his book about 'creative destruction' in "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy." Although, newspapres may eventually fall under obsolescence- the public sphere is quite a conundrum in regard to roles of the public and capitalist interests. Such a heavy thought to go to bed to.