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Literature Review: Internet + Public Sphere = Online Public Sphere?

Literature Review: Internet + Public Sphere = Online Public Sphere?

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11/11/2012

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nternet
[plus]
Public Sphere
[equal]
Online Public Sphere?
 A literature review by 
Nena Brodjonegoro
1 of 10
During the past decade, the discussionregarding the so-called information societyhas heightened as the development andintegration of ICTs into different aspects of social world also increase. The terminformation society itself can havedifferent formulations and definitions,depending on the area and perspectiveused to define it.Although different scholars addressinformation society differently, they allagreed that information holds a specialand significant role in our present society.ICTs – and internet, as the terms will beused interchangeably in this review – arealso seen as a medium to enhancedemocracy.Often regarded as a free realm in which allsorts of information can be sent andretrieved, internet is seen to provide abasis for democratic process in theinformation society. Or, to state itdifferently, it serves as a new platform for the public sphere.This literature review will discuss theconcept of information society in relationwith the “virtual public sphere” maintainedthrough the internet. Starting from FrankWebster’s
Theories of Information Society 
,I will highlight some of the differentdefinitions of information society.Complemented with the analysis fromJohn Feather’s work,
The InformationSociety – A Study of Continuity and Change
, I will compare the two accountsof information society and present thesimilar theme that echoes through bothpublications, namely the “double-sided”character of information society. This“double-sided”ness can also be related tothe Manuel Castells’ term “networksociety”, the basic characteristic of whichis a binary logic of inclusion/exclusion.And as the internet is seen as a mediumto enhance democracy, it is rather fitting todiscuss about “public sphere”, a term firstcoined by Jürgen Habermas, and how it isconducted in the information society as a“virtual public sphere”.The four mentioned scholars will be thecore literatures in this review, plus anadditional article by Zizi Papacharissi. Thereason to choose those literatures isbecause they are among the key people ineach area of research.Webster’s account of information societyis comprehensive in terms of scope of area and Feather’s study of informationsociety is a historical account, spanningfrom the beginning of writing up to theemergence of e-democracy.Castells’ work is undoubtedly the mostinfluential writings on the subject of information in our contemporary society,and for this review his work
The Internet Galaxy 
will be the main subject of discussion.As for Habermas, despite many critiquesand opponents, his term “public sphere” isvery valuable in seeing how informationplays a central role in our society and inachieving the ideal of democracy. An‘internetization’ of Habermas’ notion of public sphere, namely the virtual publicsphere, is explored thoroughly inPapacharissi’s article, which questionedthe possibility of a virtual public sphere.This review will be structured as follows:firstly I will briefly highlight the differentconceptions regarding information societybased on Webster’s and Feather’saccounts. I will simultaneously comparethe ideas from both scholars and further discuss the common queries aboutinformation and information society. Thenotion of information society will also berelated and compared with that of networksociety from Castells. On the second part Iwill discuss about the public sphere in theinformation society and how both are
 
nternet
[plus]
Public Sphere
[equal]
Online Public Sphere?
 A literature review by 
Nena Brodjonegoro
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closely related. The last part will talk morethoroughly about the virtual public sphere,particularly the critiques and thechallenges of establishing one.
Information Society: What Is It?
Despite the many discussions regardinginformation society, the definition of “information society” itself is still unclear –each area regards information differently,hence producing a different definition of information society. Frank Webster (2006)provided a comprehensive account on thematter and distinguish five definitions of information society on the area of technological, economic, occupational,spatial and cultural, each of which neednot to be mutually exclusive.Besides these definitions, Webster provides a thorough discussion aboutvarious theories/school of thought relatedto information society in different aspectsof social world, each by the keyproponents in the area.The discussion included theory of post-industrial society by Daniel Bell; networksociety by Manuel Castells; informationand the market by Herbert Schiller;information and democracy by JürgenHabermas; information, reflexivity andsurveillance by Anthony Giddens;information and postmodernity by JeanBaudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, andMark Poster. Webster argued that thedifferent explanations about the role of information in the society can bedistinguished into two main ideas: thosewhich suggested that a new kind of society has emerged from the old one andthose who suggested that the presentsociety is one that continues from the oldone.On the former idea are theorists of post-industrialism such as Bell, postmodernismsuch as Baudrillard, and the informationalmode of development (Manuel Castells);and on the latter are theorists of neo-Marxism such as Schiller, reflexivemodernization such as Giddens, andpublic sphere such as Habermas.The similar view is shared by Feather (2004), though he takes it to a differentunderstanding. He argues that theinformation-dependent society combinesboth profound change and fundamentalcontinuity and can only be understood incontext (p. xiii). The context itself is partlyhistorical, partly economic, and partlypolitical, and therefore the discussionregarding information society is very vast.In each phase of development of communication and information in thesociety, both the continuity and changesare understandable if we see it in context.Going through both literatures, there areone common query regarding the notion of information society that we are said to beliving in now. Why does information havesuch central position in our society nowthat we even call our society an“information society”? Hasn’t in alwaysbeen that way even since the ancientEgypt – that information plays animportant role in the society?As mentioned above, information hasalways been central in our society. But itseems that we value information evenmore in our present society, and this isdue mostly to the development of ICTs.Feather suggested several reasons for this, and they can be divided into threeareas: the value of information, thetechnical capacity of ICTs, and the natureof interactivity of the internet.And as we moved toward the present,information is increasingly seen, in somerespects, as being too valuable to bepublic (Feather, 2004, p. xvi), thusinformation is valorized. This value of information is then intensified by theemergence of market economy and thedevelopment of ICTs which enables us to
 
nternet
[plus]
Public Sphere
[equal]
Online Public Sphere?
 A literature review by 
Nena Brodjonegoro
3 of 10
store, process and transmit information. Inour (post)industrial society now, almost allbasic transactions of our everyday life isconducted through the help of ICTs andwe cannot imagine how our life would bewithout it.The government relies heavily on theinformation/data base on all aspects of itsgovernance, and so does business andcorporation. Even the private, daily lives of the individuals increasingly rely on theinformation sent and retrieved from theinternet.The vast spread of and dependence toICT and internet, brings not onlyadvantage but also some problems,particularly those related to inclusion andthe digital divide. This is due to the basiclogic of ICTs and internet: network which Iwill discuss more in the next section.The technical capability of the computer and internet has also made them “theforce behind changes far greater thanthose wrought by any other invention of aninventive century” (Feather, 2004, p. xii).They are able to simulate skills andattributes that we once thought wereunique to human, namely memory, logic,and communication. This capability bringsnot only hope but also fear, as thecomputer seemingly become more‘powerful’ than us, the creator.The computer also demanded andfacilitated the convergence of technologies (particularly with theinternet), which allows us to combinecomputing with telecommunications andthe digitization of text and image to permitalmost instantaneous worldwidetransmission of data (Feather, 2004) p.xv), as long as the computers areconnected in the massive network of internet.This capacity for interactivity with other computers places their users in a uniquelypowerful position, because the informationare available and retrievable for them. Theform, time and place of output can belargely determined by the convenience of the user rather than that of the provider (Feather, 2004, p. 208-9).The emergence of new platform of theinternet such as Web 2.0 further advancesthis interactivity as the users can nowenjoy features such as content-on-demand and video streaming. Thisinteractivity also differentiates computersfundamentally from all previousmechanisms for the storage and retrievalof information (Feather, 2004).Besides the three ideas from Feather,another line of thought suggested that thedistinguishing feature of the informationsociety is the large quantity of informationavailable (Webster, 2006). This issupported by emergence of new mediaand the consistent presence of conventional media, such as TV andnewspaper, despite the availability of newmedia.The abundance of information is notnecessarily a good thing, indicated by theterm “information overload”. Besides that,the increase in quantity of informationavailable does not mean that the qualityalso increases. Quite the contrary, thehigh quantity of information is likely theresult of manipulation – information that isgenerated to entertain or divert,camouflage, or to deceive the public, for political or market interest. This view issupported by authors such as Schiller andHabermas.From the discussion above, we can seethat information society is very hard todefine, despite its seemingly self-explanatory term. What constitutes asinformation may be agreed upon, but theoutcome of information that defines theinformation society is rather debatable asinformation carries always two-sides

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