The New Public Sphere
Invisible Actors, Intangible Codes
A well-informed public is one of the key elements for the functioning of a democracy. However we must acknowledge the paradoxical nature of the present public that is global in size but limited to conversing through a computer screen. These days it seems a well-informed public is a public that knows the whereabouts of the Kardashians, and a well-informed president knows exactly when Obama begins to wiretap his cellphones. This is largely due to the advancements in technology that have allowed the public sphere to engage with information as soon as it is known, for the most part globally, and yet with this massive expansion, the public sphere becomes limited to anyone with a smartphone or access to the internet. We therefore believe in, and communicate and engage with a public that is intangible: never seen, never felt, but definitely active. We are thereby engaging with several different codes and formulas that operate invisibly behind our computer screens.
Jurgen Habermas defined the bourgeois public sphere where people would meet to discuss, debate and evaluate policies and the society they lived in. Habermas credits the editorial section of newspapers as a medium through which the public was able to convey their ideas and thoughts to the state. These discussions would inform politics, and the state was thus guided by these discourses, which had the power to undermine or elevate power in a certain time or place. The vision of older times when intellectual people (mostly men with long beards) would meet in Parisian style coffee shops and discuss their worries, concerns and apprehensions seems to belong to a bygone era, when cafes and pubs were recognized as intellectual spaces devoted to discussing political action. Now I go to coffee shop concerned about how badly they are going to mispronounce my name this time (Akesha being one of the worst.) No matter the milieu, old public spaces or new ones, codes are are introduced by virtue of the multivalent interactions that take place in that space. And these codes have the power to run the software of our thinking, have the power to encourage people what to talk about, how to talk about it and how they should feel about it. And perhaps most important, how they should react to it.
The setting of this public engagement has now transformed from coffee shops and libraries to Twitter and Facebook where new codes have come to shape discourse on these mediums. This transformation is critical to understanding how the public sphere now engages and how that impacts not just local politics but global politics. People now hold in the palm of their hands the potential to find any information they seek, and that information is usually (always) in agreement with their existing beliefs and views. People now have the potential to edit their own experience of world events. Using various search engines (mostly Google) we may find information to back our beliefs and discard the information that perhaps doesn’t. In step with our tendency toward confirmation bias, now our beliefs and views are regularly confirmed as a result of the algorithms set by Google and Facebook that mechanically calculate and manipulate our sense of identity. We have become victims of our own algorithms.
Understanding the impact of technology on the public sphere is complex. Technology has simultaneously aided and disrupted the very foundations by which public engagement is structured. The idea that we now have a global platform where people can instantly communicate by “tweeting” live, or even the fact that the word “tweet” is no longer defined as a sound birds make, but a message/image a user posts on Twitter, clearly highlights the massive transformation the public sphere has experienced. The public is now global, well-connected, and young, but also seem to be failing to recognize the power of these mechanical entities and complex coding that now govern our web lives.
Who are these people who wield such power over us but will never be visible in real life? Who are these people we listen to and believe? Who are these people who tell us exactly what we need to know? And who are these people who know exactly what we want to know? And are they people at all? The public engages with people and algorithms without knowing which is which, and they do so investing intangible emotions such as trust, logic and the belief that the people, ideas, and platforms we are engaging with are truthful. But if we fail to acknowledge that the thing we are engaging with, this “invisible belief system,” is a set of complicated codes that decides what we should know and conditions what we want to know, we fall into a complicated trap of manipulation.
Social media has been able to break class, racial, and gender-related barriers and therefore become a remarkable mode of emancipation. The public now speaks English, German, Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin, Xhosa and uses hashtags to better explain ideas, problems, and motivations #likethisarticle. But has this mode of emancipation also created problems never experienced before? Fake News, which spreads like wildfire and is regarded as real indeed by some, is now pandemic. This is no doubt a consequence of the intangible public that creates delicious hashtags that have the ability to convert rumor into fact.
Many Indians beam with pride as UNESCO declares everything in our land the best. Yup, fake news yields real bravado. Millions forward WhatsApp messages with flashy, flattering headlines such as “UNESCO declares “India’s National Anthem to be the best in the world,” a silliness which in turn has led to cheeky fake news such as “UNESCO declares it doesn’t declare.” But apparently UNESCO has also declared that Modi is the best Prime Minister and that India’s 2,000 Rupee note created after the demonetisation fiasco is the best in the world. UNESCO seems suspiciously aligned and supportive of all of Prime Minister Modi’s policies, and these forwards that internationally recognize India clearly bolsters support for his policies in turn. Who starts this fake news? Who should be held responsible for spreading this fake news? The Indian public who receives it and sends it (this includes my mother) as WhatsApp forwards? Who is this anonymous, intangible person we are dealing with that has the ability to impact global belief systems and change discourse? This is the problem. Fake news spreads because Google or Facebook will show the fake article to my mother because her past searches and ‘likes’ suggest she will enjoy this article — even (or especially) if it is fake.
The social reality is that the online public sphere is now belief-based rather than reason-based, unlike what Habermas perceived it was and hoped it would be. Yet if we wholly undermine this high-tech version of the public sphere, we risk obscuring its importance — especially its capacity to create change. The Arab Spring Revolution started with a single tweet regarding the suicide of street vendor in Tunisia that led to a contagious political instability throughout the Middle East and impacted the whole world. It also challenged the norms of a bourgeois public limited to experts and intellectuals, creating an alternative public where we are able to witness the same world at the same time given to us by ordinary citizens. However every code, and every combination of codes, create specific lenses through which distinct publics view the world. This is not a new feature of a democratic public: opinion has always been biased. So to suggest that this lens that we see the world through is not biased or tainted is to argue that the public sphere is holds no space for dissent. Technology has created accessibility to the extent that no existing information is out of reach or undocumented. This is a massive achievement for the democratization of information, but in its turn, this leveling of access and distribution has also led to the creation and spreading of fake news. To not recognize, judge or question these algorithms is to forget what is forming public opinion now. Let us question these mathematical formulas behind the computer screen that forms, shapes and molds ideas but remains invisible and complex. What is it? And what does it want?