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

Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?

During the past decade, the discussion regarding the so-called information society has heightened as the development and integration of ICTs into different aspects of social world also increase. The term information society itself can have different formulations and definitions, depending on the area and perspective used to define it. Although different scholars address information society differently, they all agreed that information holds a special and significant role in our present society. ICTs – and internet, as the terms will be used interchangeably in this review – are also seen as a medium to enhance democracy. Often regarded as a free realm in which all sorts of information can be sent and retrieved, internet is seen to provide a basis for democratic process in the information society. Or, to state it differently, it serves as a new platform for the public sphere. This literature review will discuss the concept of information society in relation with the “virtual public sphere” maintained through the internet. Starting from Frank Webster’s Theories of Information Society, I will highlight some of the different definitions of information society. Complemented with the analysis from John Feather’s work, The Information Society – A Study of Continuity and Change, I will compare the two accounts of information society and present the similar theme that echoes through both publications, namely the “double-sided” character of information society. This “double-sided”ness can also be related to the Manuel Castells’ term “network society”, the basic characteristic of which is a binary logic of inclusion/exclusion. And as the internet is seen as a medium to enhance democracy, it is rather fitting to
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

discuss about “public sphere”, a term first coined by Jürgen Habermas, and how it is conducted in the information society as a “virtual public sphere”. The four mentioned scholars will be the core literatures in this review, plus an additional article by Zizi Papacharissi. The reason to choose those literatures is because they are among the key people in each area of research. Webster’s account of information society is comprehensive in terms of scope of area and Feather’s study of information society is a historical account, spanning from the beginning of writing up to the emergence of e-democracy. Castells’ work is undoubtedly the most influential 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 critiques and opponents, his term “public sphere” is very valuable in seeing how information plays a central role in our society and in achieving the ideal of democracy. An ‘internetization’ of Habermas’ notion of public sphere, namely the virtual public sphere, is explored thoroughly in Papacharissi’s article, which questioned the possibility of a virtual public sphere. This review will be structured as follows: firstly I will briefly highlight the different conceptions regarding information society based on Webster’s and Feather’s accounts. I will simultaneously compare the ideas from both scholars and further discuss the common queries about information and information society. The notion of information society will also be related and compared with that of network society from Castells. On the second part I will discuss about the public sphere in the information society and how both are
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Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
closely related. The last part will talk more thoroughly about the virtual public sphere, particularly the critiques and the challenges of establishing one. and on the latter are theorists of neoMarxism such as Schiller, reflexive modernization such as Giddens, and public sphere such as Habermas. The similar view is shared by Feather (2004), though he takes it to a different understanding. He argues that the information-dependent society combines both profound change and fundamental continuity and can only be understood in context (p. xiii). The context itself is partly historical, partly economic, and partly political, and therefore the discussion regarding information society is very vast. In each phase of development of communication and information in the society, both the continuity and changes are understandable if we see it in context. Going through both literatures, there are one common query regarding the notion of information society that we are said to be living in now. Why does information have such central position in our society now that we even call our society an “information society”? Hasn’t in always been that way even since the ancient Egypt – that information plays an important role in the society? As mentioned above, information has always been central in our society. But it seems that we value information even more in our present society, and this is due mostly to the development of ICTs. Feather suggested several reasons for this, and they can be divided into three areas: the value of information, the technical capacity of ICTs, and the nature of interactivity of the internet. And as we moved toward the present, information is increasingly seen, in some respects, as being too valuable to be public (Feather, 2004, p. xvi), thus information is valorized. This value of information is then intensified by the emergence of market economy and the development of ICTs which enables us to
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Information Society: What Is It?
Despite the many discussions regarding information 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 the matter and distinguish five definitions of information society on the area of technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural, each of which need not to be mutually exclusive. Besides these definitions, Webster provides a thorough discussion about various theories/school of thought related to information society in different aspects of social world, each by the key proponents in the area. The discussion included theory of postindustrial society by Daniel Bell; network society by Manuel Castells; information and the market by Herbert Schiller; information and democracy by Jürgen Habermas; information, reflexivity and surveillance by Anthony Giddens; information and postmodernity by Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Mark Poster. Webster argued that the different explanations about the role of information in the society can be distinguished into two main ideas: those which suggested that a new kind of society has emerged from the old one and those who suggested that the present society is one that continues from the old one. On the former idea are theorists of postindustrialism such as Bell, postmodernism such as Baudrillard, and the informational mode of development (Manuel Castells);
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
store, process and transmit information. In our (post)industrial society now, almost all basic transactions of our everyday life is conducted through the help of ICTs and we cannot imagine how our life would be without it. The government relies heavily on the information/data base on all aspects of its governance, and so does business and corporation. Even the private, daily lives of the individuals increasingly rely on the information sent and retrieved from the internet. The vast spread of and dependence to ICT and internet, brings not only advantage but also some problems, particularly those related to inclusion and the digital divide. This is due to the basic logic of ICTs and internet: network which I will discuss more in the next section. The technical capability of the computer and internet has also made them “the force behind changes far greater than those wrought by any other invention of an inventive century” (Feather, 2004, p. xii). They are able to simulate skills and attributes that we once thought were unique to human, namely memory, logic, and communication. This capability brings not only hope but also fear, as the computer seemingly become more ‘powerful’ than us, the creator. The computer also demanded and facilitated the convergence of technologies (particularly with the internet), which allows us to combine computing with telecommunications and the digitization of text and image to permit almost instantaneous worldwide transmission of data (Feather, 2004) p. xv), as long as the computers are connected in the massive network of internet. This capacity for interactivity with other computers places their users in a uniquely
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

powerful position, because the information are available and retrievable for them. The form, time and place of output can be largely determined by the convenience of the user rather than that of the provider (Feather, 2004, p. 208-9). The emergence of new platform of the internet such as Web 2.0 further advances this interactivity as the users can now enjoy features such as content-ondemand and video streaming. This interactivity also differentiates computers fundamentally from all previous mechanisms for the storage and retrieval of information (Feather, 2004). Besides the three ideas from Feather, another line of thought suggested that the distinguishing feature of the information society is the large quantity of information available (Webster, 2006). This is supported by emergence of new media and the consistent presence of conventional media, such as TV and newspaper, despite the availability of new media. The abundance of information is not necessarily a good thing, indicated by the term “information overload”. Besides that, the increase in quantity of information available does not mean that the quality also increases. Quite the contrary, the high quantity of information is likely the result of manipulation – information that is generated to entertain or divert, camouflage, or to deceive the public, for political or market interest. This view is supported by authors such as Schiller and Habermas. From the discussion above, we can see that information society is very hard to define, despite its seemingly selfexplanatory term. What constitutes as information may be agreed upon, but the outcome of information that defines the information society is rather debatable as information carries always two-sides
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Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
consequences: Is the information society liberating or limiting? Is the information society focuses on quantity or quality of the information? Is the information available everywhere or nowhere? Similar problem can also be found in the discussion regarding network society. Is a network enabling or limiting? Is it effective or complicated? Is it strong or vulnerable? To better understand the similarity, it is necessary to review the notion of network society. Network society is a society “whose social structure is made of networks powered by microelectronics-based information and communication technologies” (Castells, 2004). Social structure includes structural arrangements of humans related to production, consumption, reproduction, experience and power – all of which articulated in meaningful communication coded by culture; while a network is a set of interconnected nodes (Castells, 2004). We are now experiencing a transformation towards ‘information age’, whose main feature is the spread of networks between individuals, organizations, and nations, as they become a node in the network. In this network society, there is no center – just nodes; and all nodes can communicate with other nodes in the network. A network works in binary logic of inclusion/exclusion. These are the basic logic of the internet, which serve as its main advantage (and disadvantage). Because all nodes interconnect with each other, the network can diffuse information quickly to all nodes, and information can be accessed from all nodes. But this means that the network is vulnerable to threat, and that a defect in a node can affect the whole network. And since it operates based on inclusion/exclusion, all information in the network can only be accessible from nodes that are in the network. Those
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

outside the network cannot communicate with each other. And this is where internet plays the most significant role in the network society: it connects all the networks together. Being the largest network, internet provides abundance of information and became the place where all organizations, parties, and governments post their information. Internet becomes the new public sphere. The term e-democracy and e-governance (re)emerged in the past 1015 years as a result of various effort to “digitalize” both democracy and governance – firstly to improve citizenlocal authority contact, delivery of services and, in the longer term to encourage citizen participation in public affairs (Tsagarousianou, 1998).

Information Society and Democracy: The Public Sphere
When talking about information society in relation with democracy, I think that there is no better way to start than Habermas’ concept of public sphere. What he means with public sphere is an arena, free from both government authority and market pressures, to which all members of society can enter to discuss and debate about various topic. Since the public sphere is free from political and economical interests, the discussion and debate is not manipulated and is rational. The notion of public sphere places information in its center, thus the notion of public sphere is also crucial in the discourse of democracy. The underlying assumption is that democracy can be achieved if information is provided and accessible by all members of society, because then they can make informed decision in the process of democracy. The role of the media is also significant as the provider of information
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Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
and freedom of press is often seen as the signifier of democracy (Feather, 2004). And as internet increasingly becomes incorporated in the information society as a source of information, and because of its (virtual) freedom, internet is viewed to be the promoter of democracy (Søraker, 2008; Bryan, Tsagarousianou and Tambini, 1998). Therefore, many scholars often regards internet as the new platform for public sphere, which may bring back the “bourgeois public sphere” of the 18th and 19th century Germany and Britain before it declined in the 20th century. There are in principles two main features of Habermas’ ideal public sphere, and these are: 1) independent from government and the pressure of the market; and 2) accessible to every member of the society. These features are not without preconditions. The public can be independent from government and pressure of the market because there are consequent division of society and the state and because they are ‘propertied people’ (Gestrich, 2006). They need not to worry about fulfilling their and their family’s daily needs, and because society and state are divided they do not have to fear about censorship and/or political prosecution for their critical debate and discussion. Regarding the access to the public sphere, although it seems accessible to all member of society, there is a ‘filter’ to enter it: literacy. Habermas talked about the ‘World of Letter” (Habermas, 1962, 1989), and to be able to participate in the rational debate one had to be literate – in reading and/or writing. This issue of accessibility is one of the main critiques toward Habermas (Gestrich, 2006; Papacharissi, 2002), and one of the main problems of the proliferation of internet. A discussion about public sphere and the internet is especially heightening with regard to the European Union, as scholars talk about the European Public Sphere (Baisnee, 2007; Kaitatzi-Whitlock, 2007) relating with the mass media and internet as well. Kaitatzi-Whitlock even suggested that the television media, “which in synergy with new media such as the Internet becomes interactive, is the best instrument to fill these gaps of the still missing common pan-European public space” (p. 685). The interactivity, along with the underlying logic and the size of network (i.e. the inclusion of all connected nodes), of the internet makes it a promising platform for achieving the ideal public sphere.

The Virtual Public Sphere: Critiques and Challenges
Despite its critiques regarding the historical account of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’ and the preconditions of the public sphere, the notion itself is proven to be intriguing and significant since it was first coined in 1962. Scholars continued to discuss and critique his work in various area even until now (Gestrich, 2006; Papacharissi, 2002), and the term public sphere nevertheless provides a useful starting point to discuss democracy in relation with media – including the internet. In the information age, the ‘virtual public sphere’ on the internet platform has some characteristic resemblance with the public sphere in the 18th and 19th century, and only differs in the contextual accounts. Both provides a platform to conduct discussions and debates that is accessible to virtually all members of the society, both are relatively free from state intervention and commercial interests, and both disregard status of the individuals who are willing to enter the public sphere. These characteristics are all debatable, as
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A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
the first section of Papacharissi (2002) outlined. The public sphere never provided equal access to all members of society as it excludes women and nonpropertied public realm, and that government which pays attention to all diverse voices or the public sphere has never existed (Fraser, 1992, in Papacharissi, 2002), and Lyotard (1984, in Papacharissi, 2002) argued that anarchy, individuality, and disagreement, and not rational accord, lead to democratic emancipation. As Papacharissi noted (2002), the main argument regarding “virtual public sphere” is the access to it. Similar to the abovementioned critique about access to public sphere, the virtual public sphere is viewed to not be accessible for all members of society. Despite the seemingly global reach of internet, there is still a problem with access to the internet in some societies and some parts of societies, resulting in the division between the haves and the have-nots. For the haves, internet serves as a tool for participating in the virtual public sphere and as for the have-nots, they are excluded from the discussion at all since they are not in the network. Another argument that follows this argument is that the inclusion in the network of virtual public sphere does not necessarily mean increased political activity nor enlighten political debate (Papacharissi, 2002). Increase in political activity does not guarantee that the increase is one towards the betterment of the democratic process, as the freedom of expression includes expressing the negative expression as well. What is for sure is that internet with its interactivity provides various alternatives for political expression and to be politically involved. One can publish blog, join a forum, post a comment on a bulletin board, and create a website. Compared to the 18th century public sphere, the number of places to
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro

conduct discussions in the virtual public sphere is virtually limitless. And so is the number of information available. As all nodes in the network can transmit information to all other nodes, information in the virtual public sphere comes from all participants of the virtual public sphere: government, political party, individuals, politicians, economists, academia, and others. And rather different from the 18th century public sphere in which the participants of the discussion had no private interests, in the virtual public sphere all participants have their interests. Thus the information that is available could be biased and/or manipulated in order to achieve its own end (Papacharissi, 2002; Webster, 2006). This can be seen in the time before an election, when politicians can influence its voters only through smart use of the internet. In this sense, internet platform does not create new practices, but rather preserving old practices that have long been shaping the democratic process. The virtual public sphere is also argued to be fragmentizing instead of unifying. The online political discussion provides a place for diversity and rational debates, but there is doubt about whether different groups could get along on the discussion (Papacharissi, 2002). The free realm of internet also enables individuals to choose special interest groups that suit her/him, as a result and resulting the internet more fragmented. In this sense the number of people that the information (or opinion) reach can be more diverse, but also smaller (p. 17). This small online discussion group is perhaps similar to Habermas’ public sphere of coffee houses and salons, but it also make the forming of public opinion through virtual public sphere rather hard if one aims for a massive one. One last point that Papacharissi made in her article is that the virtual public sphere
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Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
is the commercial interest surrounding the virtual public sphere. According to Carey (1995, in Papacharissi, 2002), the virtual public sphere is susceptible to the same force that originally transformed public sphere. The spread of capitalism which allowed the emergence of public sphere in the 18th century turned to undermine it in the late 20th and early 21st century. The business’ emphasis on advertising and revenue also infiltrate internet because it is seen as a cheap and massive media to advertise and run business on. Therefore, some scholars argued that the internet will submit to the ‘dominant pattern of capitalism’ and is more likely to ‘adapt to the existing political culture rather than create a new one’ (McChesney, 1995, in Papacharissi, 2002). This statement illustrates the biggest challenge of virtual public sphere: whether it would provide a different result than conventional offline public and/or political discussion, or it would only recreate the same pattern and result in the virtual world. Although the internet platform demands a different mode of discussion and relationship, but it is still part of our social world. Hence it retains certain pattern of power relations – between individuals, between economic, political, cultural interest – which may not encourage the establishment of an ideal public sphere. To paraphrase Papacharissi, internet does provide a new public space, but it doesn’t necessarily constitute public sphere. In this perspective, the recurring theme of change and continuity can again be seen. Although internet brings about something new to the society, but it is also ‘only’ a development of something that has existed before. To a certain extent, the new features will always reflect the existing characteristics. Thus, as Feather suggested, the question of change and
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro
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continuity of the information society should not be viewed as a dichotomy, but rather as a contextual attribute which are constantly present. Information society will always be loaded with contradictory features accompanying each other: enabling/limiting, including/excluding, empowering/marginalizing, democracy/diversity, overload/information, equality/elitism, and many more (Calcutt, 1999). Therefore, what defines both information society and the public sphere is not the significant features of each, but rather what we do with it and how we can best utilize and balance those contradictory features. Internet, with all its distinguished capability and quality, will not change the ‘face’ of public sphere (or any other ‘sphere’) unless we, as the stakeholders, want it to. Internet is after all just a technological device and its presence alone cannot solve the problem of our society, be it democracy, poverty, or equality. Just like any other tool, what matters and what determines the result of the internet is what we do with it and how we cope with its contradictory contextual attitude.

Internet [plus] Public Sphere [equal] Online Public Sphere?
- edited by Nick Crossley, Roberts John and Michael John Papacharissi, Zizi (2002) ‘The Virtual Sphere: The Internet as A Public Sphere’, New Media Society, 4; p9-27 Søraker, Johnny Hartz (2008) 'Global Freedom of Expression Within Nontextual Frameworks', The Information Society, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p40–46. Webster, Frank (2006) Theories of Information Society Third Edition, London and New York: Routledge

Bibliography Baisnee, Olivier (2007) ‘The European Public Sphere Does Not Exist (At Least It’s Worth Wondering…)’, European Journal of Communication, Dec2007, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p493-503. Castells, Manuel (2004) ‘Informationalism, Networks, and The Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint’, in Castells, Manuel (ed) The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective, Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar

Castells, Manuel (2001), The Internet Galaxy - Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press Gestrich, Andreas (2006) ‘The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate’, German History Vol. 24 No. 3, p413-430. Habermas, Jürgen (1989 [1962]) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Huspek, Michael (2007) ‘Habermas and Oppositional Public Spheres: A Stereoscopic Analysis of Black and White Press Practices’, Political Studies Vol. 55 Issue 4, p821–843. Kaitatzi-Whitlock, Sophia (2007) 'The Missing European Public Sphere and The Absence of Imagined European Citizenship’, European Societies, Vol. 9 Issue 5, p685704. McKee, Alan (2006) After Habermas. New Perspectives on the Public Sphere
A literature review by Nena Brodjonegoro
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