Habermas’ heritage
First Monday

Habermas’ heritage: The future of the public sphere in the network society by Pieter Boeder

In the digital age, the discussion about the public sphere has at the same time become increasingly relevant and increasingly problematic. The validity and relevance of post–modern critique to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere cannot be denied, yet the concept of a public sphere and Habermas’ notion of a critical publicity is still extremely valuable for media theory today.

The public sphere is subject to dramatic change; one might even argue that it is on the verge of extinction. Computer–mediated communication has taken the place of coffeehouse discourse, and issues such as media ownership and commodification pose serious threats to the free flow of information and freedom of speech on the Web. I don't believe the situation is quite that serious. I will give an introductory overview of Habermas’ theoretical concept and point out that it is conceptual rather than physical.

I will describe why Habermas’ key concept is valuable for media theory today. Further, I will give an overview of the main issues, debates and problems that arose around the concept of the public sphere in the decades that followed. I will conclude that the notion of the public sphere is not a static one, but subject to change, and show how the theoretical concept of the public sphere is being used to work out viable options for a digital future and models for positive change.


Reason crucial to communication
The post–modern debate
A shallow substitute?
Commodification of the public sphere
Panoptic surveillance
Distorted communication?
The public sphere and democracy
Journalism and content
The public sphere, c’est moi!
Networks and social structure
The modern delusion
Globalisation and the public sphere
The future of the public sphere





"Reframing the discussion for a moment, one could say that journalism has been doing its best to deny the mounting evidence of difficulties in the classic Enlightenment formulations — a refusal to air the relevance of such disputes for its own activities."
— Peter Dahlgren

Jürgen Habermas published Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, his critical investigation and analysis of the public sphere in civil society, in 1962. The work describes the evolution from opinion to public opinion and the socio–structural transformation of the latter. According to Habermas, the emergence of the mass press is based on the commercialisation of the participation of the masses in the public sphere. Consequently, this ‘extended’ public sphere lost much of its original political character in favour of commercialism and entertainment.

This shift is documented with regard to the public sphere’s pre–eminent institution, the press: Habermas diagnoses an integration of the once separate domains of journalism and literature, and an increasing blurring caused by the mass media in their response to the emergence of a consumerist culture:

"Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of the material." [1]

The emergence of the electronic mass media in the public sphere made things even worse. "The news is made to resemble a narrative from its own format down to stylistic detail; the rigorous distinction between fact and fiction is ever more frequently abandoned." Yet at the same time they have an impact more penetrating than the print media, yet their format effectively prevents interaction and deprives the public of the opportunity to say something and to disagree, leading Habermas to the conclusion that "The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only" [2].

At the same time, as a result of the changing communications environment, the public sphere is discovered as a platform for advertising. A new class of participants in the public debate emerges: The practitioners of public relations, distinguished from the advertisers by their claim to the public sphere. Advertising limited itself by and large to a simple sales pitch; public relations goes further. It invades the process of public opinion by systematically creating or exploiting news events that attract attention. Engineering of consent is its central task, which leads to a staged "public opinion" and the false assumption among the public that "as critically reflecting private people they contribute responsibly to public opinion" [3].

Habermas notes the contradiction between the liberal public sphere’s constitutive catalogue of "basic rights of man" and their de facto restriction to a certain class of men. The character of the public sphere is increasingly restricted; the media serve as vehicles for generating and managing consensus and promoting capitalist culture rather than fulfill their original function as organs of public debate. Publicity loses its critical function in favour of a staged display; arguments are transmuted into symbols to which one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them.

The mass media, Habermas argues, have mutated into monopoly capitalist organisations. Their role in the public debate has shifted from the dissemination of reliable information to the formation of public opinion. Habermas stresses the importance of a vital and functioning Öffentlichkeit, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organisations that represent public opinion and interest groups, to counter these developments and as a conditio sine qua non for a pluralist democratic debate in an open society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media.



Reason crucial to communication

The Enlightenment left open a crucial question: How does reason justify itself? What is to prevent reason from challenging reason? Foucault (1979) rejects reason as an instrument of oppression. Habermas sees things differently: If we believe in the importance of the universal human impulse to communicate, we have to believe in reason. Habermas presupposes reason, although it is merely the product of imperfect human Auseinandersetzung, critical and discussion debate, and believes that reasoned communication can weaken prejudices, increase the scope and power of the public sphere and strengthen democracy.

Habermas is one of the most prominent members of the Frankfurt School, an extraordinarily distinguished collection of leftist philosophers and social thinkers gathered in the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (Stephens, 1994). The new, interdisciplinary way of thinking that the Frankfurt School developed — "critical theory" — aimed to apply philosophic ideas to diagnose social problems. Central in Habermas’ thinking is the notion that the quality of society depends on our capacity to communicate, to debate and discuss: Reason is crucial to communication, sich auseinandersetzen.

Habermas believes we can reason out solutions to our problems, that just institutions can lead to a fairer society based on cooperation rather than competition. At stake is a crucial intellectual issue: Are there certain basic standards underlying our behaviours, standards like reason and justice? Or is the world a swampy, relativistic place, where we play our games or seek some power in the muck? Mitchell Stephens (1994) writes on Habermas: "Whether he has been a voice of reason and justice is disputed in philosophic and political circles, but Habermas certainly has been a staunch advocate of the importance of these principles."



The post–modern debate

First published in German in 1962, Habermas’ statement on the public sphere Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit had relatively little impact on the Anglo–American debate until the publication of its English translation in 1989. Published well before the digital revolution, the work addresses the implications of modern communications technologies only in a cursory and fragmentary fashion. Habermas’ work on the public sphere is frequently attacked by post–modernists who question the emancipatory potentials of its model of consensus through rational debate.

It must be noted and emphasised that the term Öffentlichkeit, the original term for its better known translation "public sphere," is conceptual rather than physical. The public sphere is "not a marketplace, nor is it a coffeehouse, a salon, an organisation or a newspaper" (Hinton, 1998). Rather, the public sphere transcends these physical appearances as an abstract forum for dialogue and ideology–free public opinion, a lively debate on multiple levels within society. Interesting in this regard is that the German word for public relations is Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, which could both be translated as "work within the public sphere" or "work on the public sphere."

The debate that emerges as a reaction on Habermas’ work goes in different directions. Important focal points are the significance of the public sphere for democracy. Growth of information inequality threatens basic human rights; the power of state and corporation to engage in electronic surveillance in civil society threatens both the rights of groups to speak and organise and the privacy rights of individuals. New forms of citizenship and public life are simultaneously enabled by new technology and restricted by market power and surveillance. One might, for example, draw from Foucault’s concept of the panoptic society to argue that the spread of information technology is likely to lead to a loss of autonomy in many realms of political, economic, cultural and social life (Friedland, 1996).



A shallow substitute?

Do the new media like the Internet, then, merely offer a shallow substitute for "authentic" discourse, or do they contribute a new quality to the public sphere? Can virtual communities contribute to the revival of the public debate, the öffentliche Auseinandersetzung — or are they merely distracting simulations? Fernback and Thompson’s critique (1995) of the democratic potential of virtual communities interrogates the claim that online communications can actually strengthen civil society: "It seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer–mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation."

They criticise the general lack of debate about issues of ownership and control of the technology and for whose benefit it is being developed: "Although [computer–mediated communication] offers some advantages over face–to–face communication (...) we find the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Indeed, each of the ‘advantages’ could be construed as a disadvantage: Appearances do matter; conversation should not be based on solely efficiency; and some ideas are more useful than others." Fernback and Thompson conclude that citizenship via cyberspace "has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society."

Rheingold (1998), although generally quite upbeat about the opportunities of the new medium, believes this conclusion to be premature. He stresses the importance of active participation: Electronic media do offer a unique channel for publishing and communicating, which is fundamental to democracy. Communication media are necessary but not sufficient for self–governance and healthy societies: "When we are called to action through the virtual community, we need to keep in mind how much depends on whether we simply ‘feel involved’ or whether we take the steps to actually participate in the lives of our neighbours, and the civic life of our communities."

Earlier, Rheingold (1994) argued that the ICT industry is a business like any other, viewed primarily as an economic player: "Telecommunications gives certain people access to means of influencing certain other people’s thoughts and perceptions, and that access — who has it and who doesn’t have it — is intimately connected with political power. The prospect of the technical capabilities of a near–ubiquitous high–bandwidth Net in the hands of a small number of commercial interests has dire political implications. Whoever gains the political edge on this technology will be able to use the technology to consolidate power."

Two powerful and opposed images of the future of communications technology exist. There is the utopian vision of the electronic agora made possible by new technology and implemented through decentralised networks: "This technology, if properly understood and defended by enough citizens, does have democratizing potential in the way that alphabets and printing presses had democratizing potential" (Rheingold, 1994). Rheingold stresses the importance to hear from the other side: "We owe it to ourselves and future generations to look closely at what the enthusiasts fail to tell us, and to listen attentively to what the skeptics fear."



Commodification of the public sphere

What these "skeptics" fear is primarily the classical argument in mass media research of commodification, the way electronic communications media already have pre–empted public discussions by turning media content into commodities. The consumer society has become the accepted model both for individual behaviour and political decision making, Rheingold (1994) argues, yet consumerism poses a threat to the public sphere: "The consumer society, the most powerful vehicle for generating short–term wealth ever invented, ensures economic growth by first promoting the idea that the way to be is to buy." Discourse degenerated into publicity, and publicity used the increasing power of electronic media to alter perceptions and shape beliefs. What dies in this process is the rational discourse at the base of civil society.

Dahlgren (1995) argues that the concept of the public sphere in the dialectic of the Enlightenment is ambiguous to begin with: Modern democracy is no longer seen as a system expressing the will of the people, but rather one which offers consumers a series of choices. He diagnoses "a growing loss of power by centralised political systems; changes in social structure are bringing about new forms of political culture": He points at the increasing lack of participation in the political discourse and emphasises a balanced relationship between the state and the civil society as a precondition for democracy and a viable public sphere, which encompasses the media. Dahlgren emphasises the importance of the aspect of socio–cultural interaction: The public sphere is not just a "marketplace of ideas" or an "information exchange depot," but also a major vehicle for generating and distributing culture. Dahlgren leaves no doubt about the relevance of the discussion around the public sphere for journalism: "One could say that journalism has been doing its best to deny the mounting evidence of difficulties in the classic Enlightenment formulations — a refusal to air the relevance of such disputes for its own activities" [4].



Panoptic surveillance

The second argument focuses around the way traditional notions of privacy are challenged by the "transparency" of digital information and the potential of interactive networks for gathering information, for panoptic surveillance, for control and misinformation of citizens, a process which could possibly undermine or even eliminate discourse within the public sphere. Michel Foucault’s describes the concept of Bentham’s panopticon, the inspection house, as a metaphor for social surveillance. His examination of the constructions by which elites exercise and maintain power in order to control the masses greatly influenced the debate on the public sphere.

The panopticon, Foucault argued, is not a value–neutral technology. It is a technology that allows a small number of people to control a large number of others that comes in many guises:

"Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens’ privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance." [5]

Robins and Webster (1988) made the connection between Bentham, Foucault, and the evolution of the telecommunications network.

"We believe that Foucault is right in seeing Bentham’s Panopticon as a significant event in the history of the human mind. We want to suggest that the new communication and information technologies — particularly in the form of an integrated electronic grid — permit a massive extension and transformation of that same (relative, technological) mobilization to which Bentham’s panoptic principle aspired. What these technologies support, in fact, is the same dissemination of power and control, but freed from the architectural constraints of Bentham’s stone and brick prototype. On the basis of the ‘information revolution’, not just the prison or factory, but the social totality, comes to function as the hierarchical and disciplinary Panoptic machine."



Distorted communication?

Even distorted communication respects the ideal, by giving the appearance of being valid, sincere and morally appropriate, says Alinta Thornton (1996), who would also like to have on the record that although the Internet has the capacity to expand participative democracy in a revitalised public sphere, "the Internet is dominated by white, well off, English speaking, educated males, most of whom are USA citizens," the same group that dominates most of the First World society. Their dominance means that a mode of discourse is already established, which actively discourages other modes. Thornton fears a potential repression of subordinated groups by those with stronger agenda–setting capabilities, effectively excluding them from the debate. "If their ability to form political will, debate issues and influence society is expanded by the Internet, this is no way resembles a truly participative discourse of democracy."

Thornton presupposes the Internet’s "enormous" democratic potential for which cheerleader Rheingold swirls his pom–poms on www.rheingold.com: Its structure, she argues, means that it will be difficult for conglomerate telecommunications or media organisations to gain the type of control currently exercised over traditional media, even if they take control of Internet service providers. "Compared to the traditional media, many more people have access to debate and opportunities for the formation of political will. They also have access to information that is hard to obtain from traditional news media." Yet she considers commodification of the Internet as inevitable, and that the Internet will become commodified; "the process has already begun." The original Internet custom of sharing information freely within the community is diminishing (Thornton, 1996).

As for the participants in the public sphere on the Internet, Thornton diagnoses a tendency towards reframing identities, a shift from "citizens" to "consumers": Publicity becomes more prevalent as a mode of discourse, "Public" slides into "publicity" as the notion of "character" is steadily replaced by "image." Yet the Internet, Thornton concludes, does provide opportunities for revitalisation of the public sphere. Limited to privileged groups, they still represent an increase in the activities of the public sphere, however modest: "If Internet use expands into middle–income groups, lower–income groups and women, it may yet present a real opportunity for greater participation, democratic communication and a true revitalisation of the public sphere" (Thornton, 1996).



The public sphere and democracy

Habermas was among the first to point out the intimate connection between the existence of public sphere and the foundations of democratic society. Public opinion can only be formed if a public that engages in rational discussion exists. The key to understanding the Habermasian concept of public sphere is in separating it from the medium in which it develops. There are three validity claims that are an intrinsic part of language, and so which exist in all statements made: The claim to truth, the claim to truthfulness — "sincerity" — and the claim to normative validity (Hinton, 1998). Frank Webster (1995) examines the theory that the information society has been corrupted due to the inadequacies of the mass media: If, indeed, society is denied reliable information, then how can the Enlightenment ideal of a true democracy possibly be achieved?

Habermas speaks of "publicity that is staged for show or manipulation" [6]. Webster concurs with Habermas that the public sphere is deeply wounded by the intrusion of PR, which, to Habermas, violates the claim to truthfulness and marks the abandonment of criteria of rationality which once shaped public argument: "What public relations does, in entering public debate, is to disguise the interests it represents — cloaking them in appeals such as ‘public welfare’ and the ‘national interest’ — thus making contemporary debate a faked version" [7]. For Webster it becomes impossible to avoid the conclusion that "As far as information is concerned, communications and corporations’ overriding concern with the market means that their product is dedicated to the goal of generating maximum advertising revenue and supporting capitalist enterprise. As a result their content is chiefly lowest common denominator diversion" [8].



Journalism and content

Cultural products such as media content can be — and are — bought and sold like any other commodity. The theory of commodification originates in the work of Karl Marx [9] but is by no means a watered down socialist statement: Notions of commodification and commercialisation still have their relevance in today’s mass communication theory: They pose a permanent threat to the cultural quality of media products and cannot be ignored. Golding [10] warns for "a technological determinism" which sees "a wholesale solution to the failings of political communications in the promises of new technologies." McQuail [11] notes that "much of the content offered by media that is both popular and commercially successful still looks to many critics as if it is, variously, repetitive, infantile, thematically limited, undisturbing, ideologically tendentious, empty, nasty, anti–intellectual and subordinating content to form and technique."

How do they affect journalism? It has often been stated that the traditional functions of journalism will erode even further as media technology advances. The most current developments suggest that critical journalism is becoming redundant. Large companies tend to dominate the information business, primarily because brand names like Time and the Chicago Tribune provide a link with journalistic integrity, argues Christopher Harper (1998). He believes that the Internet can reverse the tide of public disdain for the media by providing a user experience that is immediate, interactive, and intimate. Bardoel (1996) points out that because of the increasing individualization and segmentation in communication such notions as "community" and "public debate" should be taken less for granted: The traditional task of journalism will shift from collecting information to directing the social flow of information and public debate. Next to this "orientating journalism," the new media offer scope for "instrumental journalism." Habermas stresses the importance of a sphere of "critical publicity" [12].



The public sphere, c’est moi!

John Hartley (1992) makes the bold argument that the media are the public sphere: "Television, popular newspapers, magazines and photography, the popular media of the modern period, are the public domain, the place where and the means by which the public is created and has its being." In the post–modern world, he argues, the image has triumphed over the word. It is the popular media where the public sphere resides. The Habermasian notion of public sphere is clinically dead: Reduced to an image–saturated space, which is at the same time personal and abstract. The mass media have created their own version of the public sphere in the form of "popular readerships," media audiences for which they produce meaning as a replacement for the discourse communities of the Enlightenment.

Golding (1990) identifies technological convergence and media ownership as major threats to social rights in communication. Friedland (1996) has a slightly different view: His perspective is organised around the concept of citizen participation in the public sphere. He argues that "to understand the democratic potential of new communications technologies we need to suspend our assumptions concerning linkages between privatisation and convergence, on the one hand, and control and interactivity, on the other, in order to examine the actual uses of emerging networks."

His argument links the dynamics of social movements and the democratic traditions that underpin them, more than to technology itself. New communications technologies are being used in ways that extend democratic communication practices. As networks become structurally decentralised, ever wider publics gain access to them in ways that lead to an increase in the rate and density of public exchange. New citizens’ movements and practices have emerged, whose community–based technology projects democratic potential has been rarely explored.

New technologies increasingly play a central role in the mediation of social networks. Any socially grounded theory of the public sphere will have to take into account these social network structures and the communications systems that bind them. The digital public sphere may be richer and more complicated than the existing literature suggests (Friedland, 1996): "By treating communities as social capital networks, rather than strictly as discourse communities, we can begin to ground the connective elements of new information technologies in social life and social structure."



Networks and social structure

We have seen that the dimensions and scope of the public sphere have been subject to significant and dramatic change. Not just the structure of the mass media, the entire society is subject to change as new network structures come into place. The technological infrastructure of communication networks is influencing the social structure of society; its development is closely related to the development of social structures in a process of interchange and mutual dependence [13].

Theoretically, a network is both able to disperse and to concentrate power. In practice, however, there is a definite tendency towards concentration of power when no adequate measures are taken to counteract this process, van Dijk argues. He concludes that society is increasingly organised in network structures, which fulfil vital economic functions in increasingly complicated systems [14]. As modern society’s dominating structure, networks are quintessential to the future of the public sphere.



The modern delusion

Poster (1995) takes a radical perspective: His quintessentially post–modern critique on Habermas’ notion of public sphere focuses on the inadequacy of modern theory to assess the full extent of what is at stake. The issue of commodification restricts the discussion of the politics of the Internet to question of economic nature. While there is no doubt that the Internet folds into existing social functions and extends them in new ways, it is by no means clear what its long term political effects are in the ways in which it institutes new social functions: "To ask then about the relation of the Internet to democracy is to challenge or to risk challenging our existing theoretical approaches and concepts as they concern these questions" (Poster, 1995).

Poster questions the traditional notion of democracy as an adequate qualitative determinant for the future of the new media:

"In the absence of a coherent alternative political program the best one can do is to examine phenomena such as the Internet in relation to new forms of the old democracy, while holding open the possibility that what might emerge might be something other than democracy in any shape that we may conceive it given our embeddedness in the present. (...) The colonization of the term by existing institutions encourages one to look elsewhere for the means to name the new patterns of force relations emerging in certain parts of the Internet."

Are there new kinds of power relations occurring between communicating individuals? In other words, is there a new politics on the Internet? Poster approaches this question by making a detour from the issue of technology and raising again the question of a public sphere: If there is a public sphere on the Internet, who populates it and how? What kinds of beings exchange information in this public sphere? What kind of community can there be in this space? What kind of disembodied politics are inscribed so evanescently in cyberspace? What constitutes communities in cyberspace and cyberdemocracy?



Globalisation and the public sphere

Hjarvard (2000) diagnoses a globalisation of the public sphere and public opinion, caused by significant change in the way the global mass media operate, resulting in a political force in its own right: "The aggregation of public opinion during this process takes place both nationally and transnationally, and the media representation of this transnational public opinion acquires its own momentum."

A gradual change in the social geography of public and political communication has taken place. The national embeddedness of the public sphere and public opinion no longer goes unquestioned and the formation of public opinion increasingly takes place across national boundaries. A transnational if not global public sphere has emerged as a forum for political discussion and opinion formation. Although news media increasingly transcend national borders, this process does not automatically create a public sphere at a transnational or global level.

At the same time, Hjarvard argues, it is often the case that major decisions and actions concerning transnational or global matters take place without intense public attention. They may often receive news coverage, "but rarely do they induce a transnational dialogue involving people other than cosmopolitan elites."

Clearly, processes of globalisation and media concentration affect the public sphere. Hjarvard identifies the process of globalisation as a powerful factor in the gradual deterritorialisation of the public sphere. At the same time, he points at the danger of its fragmentation: Media globalisation does not automatically entail the creation of a singular global public sphere, but rather a process of gradual blurring and differentiation of the public sphere to a multi–layered media structure, accompanied by an increase in interconnections: "Media are becoming independent institutions that do not share the social geography of other political or cultural institutions" (Hjarvard, 2000).

Hjarvard sketches a global media environment in which transnational and specialist news media increasingly serve a well–educated elite, while national and local media increasingly cater to the taste of disempowered social groups for whom globalisation only poses a threat. From this point of view, "the biggest problem may not necessarily be the unaccountability of transnational media industries to nation–states (...) but the tendency of national and local media to develop very domestic, in some cases even aggressive nationalistic perspectives on global affairs." The challenge is "to make transnational news media more orientated toward and accountable to national and local public spheres, while keeping national and local media orientated toward and responsible to the agenda of the outside world."



The future of the public sphere

The concept of the civil society appears to be dated in what is essentially a network society. Van Dijk distinguishes three conditions of the public sphere that are likely to disappear in the new media environment of a network society. The alliance of the public sphere with a particular place or territory diminishes: "Members of a particular organic community or a nation are no longer tied to a given territory to meet each other and build collectivities" [15]. The unitary character of the public sphere is transforming into an amalgam of different "sub"–spheres: The distinction between public and private spheres is blurring.

The conventional notion of a single, unified public sphere is likely to disappear in favour of a more segmented, pluralist model: Something like a "complex mosaic of differently sized overlapping and interconnected public spheres" (Keane, 1995). What binds people in this contemporary public sphere is a "diversified and shifting complex of overlapping similarities and differences." The Internet itself forms the perfect example of this new structure [16]. Moreover, "the common ground of the unitary nation or mass society is an idea from the age of national broadcasting through a few channels. It is still rooted in the minds of the intellectual political and media elite though it was never firmly based in reality."




Kellner (1997) argues that the notion of the information society is the new dominant ideology of technocapitalism. In studying the array of discourses which characterise these new technologies, Kellner is "bemused" by the extent to which they either expose a technophilic discourse which presents new technologies as our salvation, or they embody a technophobic discourse that demonises technology as the major source of all our problems. Dominant currents in the philosophy of technology thus essentialise technology, decontextualise it, and abstract it from culture and human meaning, and thus fail to see how deeply embedded technology is in everyday life. Kellner attempts an answer how new technologies can either be used as instruments of domination or be used for democratisation, for creating a more egalitarian society, and for empowering individuals and groups who are currently without power.

Kellner identifies the emerging concept of the information society and information superhighway as the key ideological discourse that legitimates the development of technocapitalism and the concept of the information society and the infotainment society is the primary project of the contemporary technocapitalist society:

"It is hyped to the maximum by the U.S. media because these corporations are the major players in this project, because the same corporations that own big media are merging with computer and information industries, and thus the new technologies are both a source of profit and of social power and prestige (...) The media are cheerleaders and promoters of the new technologies and the information superhighway." (Kellner, 1998).

Kellner uses the term "technocapitalism" to describe the synthesis of capital and technology to point out both the increasingly important role of technology and the continued primacy of capitalist structures.

At the same time, media culture and new technologies are vitally transforming every aspect of social life. Kellner argues that new technologies are creating a new public sphere, a new realm of cyberdemocracy, and are thus challenging public intellectuals to gain technoliteracy and to make use of the new technologies for promoting progressive causes and social transformation: "Those interested in the politics and culture of the future should therefore be clear on the important role of the new public spheres and intervene accordingly" (Kellner, 1998). He envisions a "globalisation from below," from individuals and groups using the new technologies to promote progressive social change and to create a more egalitarian and democratic society: "For as the new technologies become ever more central to every domain of everyday life, developing a progressive technopolitics in the new public spheres will become more and more important."




Over the years, the concept of the public sphere has been applied and linked to issues in media theory as diverse as commodification and consumerism, media ownership and culture, participative democracy and surveillance to its violation by PR practitioners, mapping of virtual communities, globalisation and the future of journalism. We have seen that the emergence and convergence of the electronic mass media have radically changed the notion of the public sphere. Its concept transcends these physical appearances, it has survived post–modern critique and it is still very much alive in the network society today. Its strength lies in the presumption of reason, the human ability to define and solve problems.

The public sphere is alive and well, although it will never be quite the same. Habermas’ coffeehouse discourse has evolved in the direction of mediated communication within electronic networks: Its future is with the digital media, which offer exciting possibilities as digital networks enhance and change social structures. In a sense, the public sphere has always been virtual: Its meaning lies in its abstraction. Habermas’ classical argument that the public sphere is intermittently threatened by — latent — power structures that attempt to inhibit and control the individual is undoubtedly correct. Yet at the same time, groups and individuals can indeed accomplish change by communicative action, and digital communications technology may empower them to do so. End of article


About the author

Pieter Boeder is a communication manager and consultant, based in Amsterdam and in Berlin. Pieter holds an M.A. degree in Journalism Studies from Cardiff University. His professional interests include communication management, theories of the network society, and all things digital.
E–mail: pieterboeder [at] yahoo [dot] com



1. Habermas, 1989, p. 169.

2. Habermas, 1989, p. 170.

3. Habermas, 1989, p. 194.

4. Dahlgren and Sparks, 1992, p. 9.

5. Foucault, 1979, p. 290.

6. Habermas, 1989, p. 247.

7. Webster, 1995, p. 103.

8. Webster, 1995, pp. 104–105.

9. McQuail, 1983, p. 98.

10. Golding, 1990, p. 85.

11. McQuail, 1983, p. 105.

12. Habermas, 1989, p. 248.

13. van Dijk, 1999, p. 142.

14. van Dijk, 1999, p. 239.

15. van Dijk, 1999, p. 164.

16. van Dijk, 1999, p. 165.



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Editorial history

Paper received 16 July 2002; accepted 21 August 2005.

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, by Pieter Boeder

Habermas’ heritage: The future of the public sphere in the network society by Pieter Boeder
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 9 - 5 September 2005

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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