Reconstruction 6.4 (2006)


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The Lo(n)g Revolution: the Blogosphere as an alternative Public Sphere? / Anna Notaro

<1> It is a familiar argument that we are witnessing a period of major cultural and technological upheaval, yet this recognition is rarely related to a recognition of the long history of critical reflection on the nature of cultural and social change. One of the aims of this essay is to consider the most recent discussions over technology and its political impact in the light of the seminal arguments of Raymond Williams. In Television: Technology and Cultural Form. (1974) Williams writes:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. ... These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response ... became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities. (156-157, emphasis mine)

Although the above quote refers specifically to television it still has some resonance today at a time when we are faced by very similar 'extreme social choices'. Ours is the age of the Internet, a remarkably multifaceted tool that has experienced an exponential growth and embedded itself in the daily lives of a vast number of people. As a new telecommunication technology, it allows the common individual to engage in a cybernetic system that is globally networked. Today, however, Internet has come to be established as a delimited public arena, and the question is if the cyberspace imaginary will become a highly monitored and regionalized social space or if the Internet will retain its potential for independent endeavors and ideological exchange. With these opposing scenarios in mind, the political implications of the Internet as a social network and the role of media in general present rich issues for creative and critical cultural production.

<2> Weblogs, or 'blogs' have been at the forefront of such a production since the late 1990s when Jorn Barger started using the term weblog to refer to his online journal (http://www.robotwisdom.com/) . They are a site of online communication that has sprung up in the margins around several forms of mainstream public discourses and professional communication practices. Although recently blogs have been featured in magazines, television specials and academic conferences there is little existing scholarship, especially with regards to the impact that such practices are having on re-formulating and re-shaping classic notions of the public sphere (Habermas, [1962] 1989). This essay will try and engage with the above topics in a twofold manner; having revisited Habermas's classic formulations and offered a theoretical overview of the different positions relating to the Internet's political potential, it tackles the following issues: political blogs, cyberdemocracy and the birth of the so-called 'Digital Nation'. The main focus, however, will remain on the 'blogosphere', a term coined by William Quick (2001) to indicate the 'intellectual cyberspace' that bloggers occupy. I will discuss the role of the blogosphere as the new agora in relation to the crucial intersection between technological change and the reformulation of the public sphere, as discussed in the first part of the essay. This crucial intersection is at the core of what goes under the name of 'post-human' political discourse, grounded within the context of the decline of meta-narratives, the erosion of the public realm and the radical indeterminacy of the human subject.

<3> In the introduction to The Long Revolution (1961), Raymond Williams indicates that the long revolution with which he is concerned--"taking place over so long a period that it is almost impossible not to get lost in its exceptionally complicated process"(x)--can be broken down into three main components: the democratic revolution; the industrial revolution; and the cultural revolution, (we only need to replace the word 'industrial' with 'technological' to appreciate the contemporary relevance). His interpretation of each of these was, by and large, optimistic. The determination of people to govern themselves was everywhere apparent and seemed to go hand-in-hand with the development of new forms of industrial organisation. The cultural revolution--more difficult to interpret, Williams argued--consisted in the aspiration to extend active learning and cultural participation to all people rather than to limited groups. Yet Williams also saw tensions between each of these three revolutions, and recognised that there was a range of conservative and reactionary forces ranged against them. He was also clear that these three revolutions could be properly understood only if considered in its relations to the others. Williams's arguments have been influential in numerous ways. Whilst he saw the study of cultural change as intersecting with social and political change, it is less certain now how we understand the relationships between these spheres, particularly with respect to the role that technology plays in connection to our established democratic practices. Is there nowadays any cause left for the optimism of Williams's formulations? The answer is a difficult one, as we shall better see later on. It is very likely though that Williams himself would have tempered his optimism in the light of our current situation in which, as Naomi Klein observes: "a clear pattern is emerging: as more and more companies seek to be the one overarching brand under which we consume, make art, even build our homes" (2000, 130), and the public sphere has been purchased and rendered prostrate by the profit motives of powerful media oligopolies. Of course, the perpetuity of the current situation is not inevitable and it is worth remembering that, for Williams, a truly "human order" is something we must fight for.

Habermas's public sphere revisited

<4> In 1906 Benedetto Croce wrote a book entitled What is living and what is dead of the philosophy of Hegel. The question was certainly one worth posing. Similarly, it is a worthwhile exercise to paraphrase Croce and ask what is living and what is dead of Habermas's notion of the public sphere. The immediate answer is an emphatic 'a lot!', given the recurrence of the concept in recent debates, however a more articulated response is required in order to assess the current situation. Undoubtedly, the concept of a public sphere, as introduced by Habermas in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere ([1962] 1989) has been immensely influential and it is widely regarded as an important stage in the history of ideas. Its line of development can be traced back in the work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde in the 1890s, Carl Schmidt in the 1920's, Hannah Arendt in the late 1950's and, of course, the Frankfurt School's third phase in the 1960s. Habermas's project of trying to rethink the public sphere falls within the Frankfurt School's familiar thesis of the 'decline' of culture, of the individual and of the family, adding a new theme to the long list. Since its inception the notion of the public sphere has been the privileged talking-point of sociologists and political theorists, since the 1990s, however, the Habermasian framework has been appropriated by academics working in Media and Cultural Studies, and more recently, by 'new media' and 'digital culture' scholars. What we have witnessed has been an interesting, and enriching, confluence of intellectual streams. The jury is out on whether the cultural dimension was already there (but in the background) in the Habermasian problematic or altogether absent. As in the case of Williams' three revolutions discussed above, all such factors can be properly understood only if considered in its relations to the others . In addition, the revival of the concept of the public sphere in the 1990s coincided with the growth of the Internet, the coincidence is interesting and worth mentioning for reasons that will become more apparent in the next section. Before proceeding any further it is worth dwelling, albeit briefly, on Habermas's original formulations.

<5> In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere he argues that the greatest contribution to the development of the public sphere was the emergence of its institutional base, the organizational structures that allowed these 'webs of social development' to exist. It links the growth of an urban culture, as the new arena of public life, to a new infrastructure for social communication. In recent times the concept has been articulated in other contexts, such as the study of radio talk shows and the Internet (Thompson 1995, Crane 1995, Porter 1996). Crane, in particular, has argued that the public sphere, far from disappearing in the twentieth century, has evolved into new forms where two crucial elements, the exchange of information and the social use of the medium, remain central. To my mind, the idea of applying a concept originating in a completely different media world to the contemporary one is debatable, more to the point is the importance that Habermas attributes to the process of discussion, which must take the form of rational-critical debate. This debate has a set of rules which include avoiding the use of emotion or emotive language, and instead focuses on the rationality of the content alone. Participants should have a common interest in truth, no matter their status. This view has been critiqued, mostly for being sexist, classist, Eurocentric, and illiberal by modern standards (see Calhoun, 1992). Fraser (1993), for example, points out that the equality among subjects that could have occurred as stated by Habermas was just an ideal impossible to achieve. Scholars of the media system have criticized the inadequacy of an approach that completely ignores the active role of the audience (Fiske, 1987; Golding, 1997; Curran, 1991) and the changes brought about by an often larger and more diversified public (Dahlgren, 1991). Interestingly, as Poster has acutely observed, even critics like Rita Felski who are well aware of its "patriarchal, bourgeois and logocentric attachments" end up "invoking the notion of a public sphere and more or less reducing politics to it" (Poster 2001, 264). Similarly, the above mentioned Nancy Fraser, in her essay "Rethinking the Public Sphere", updates and expands the Habermasian public sphere to include the market place and the domestic space (specifically in relation to domestic violence). Fraser's re-articulation expands the public sphere beyond the bourgeois domain to a space that is "open and accessible to all". It would seem that as the Internet increasingly interweaves itself into the fabric of daily life through such collective forums like list-servs, chat rooms, blogs and gaming communities, it assumes the role of a host for multi-user domains that, according to Fraser's definition, breeds a multiplicity of publics. In Poster's opinion it is precisely the problematization of the term 'public', brought about by contemporary electronically mediated forms of communication, that provides reason enough to dispose of Habermas's concept of the public sphere once and for all. His homogeneous model which pursues "consensus through the critique of arguments and the presentation of validity claims" only corroborates, according to Poster, the "fiction of the democratic community of full human presence", whilst obscuring critical reflection and diverting the "development of a political theory of this decidedly postmodern condition". Poster adamantly declares that Habermas's model has no place "in the arenas of electronic politics" and "we are advised to abandon it" (Poster 2001, 265). Equally adamant, but on the opposite side of the argument, is Michael Froomkin, professor of law, blogger (his blog is aptly called Dicourse.net: on the fringes of the public sphere http://discourse.net/) and author of "Habermas @discourse.net: towards a critical theory of cyberspace" (2003). Whilst aware of the idealistic and unpractical tenor of some of Habermas's formulations, Froomkin is convinced that "New technology may, however, increase the likelihood of achieving the Habermas scenario of diverse citizens' groups engaging in practical discourse of their own". In order to sustain his argument Froomkin sketches a social and institutional history of IETF[1], whose members "are engaged in a very high level of discourse, and are self consciously documenting that discourse and its procedures", thus conforming "to Habermas's requirements for a practical discourse" (Froomkin 2003). The existence of this one example is reason enough for Froomkin to hope that it "should inspire attempts to make other decisions in as legitimate and participatory a manner as possible".

<6> In concluding this section, I will try and offer a provisional answer to the question which opened it: what is living and what is dead of Habermas's public sphere? First of all, I find it significant that over forty years since its formulation such a problematic concept is still stirring critical debate. Second, the fact that even some of its harshest critics (see Felski, Fraser above) cannot bring themselves to reject it testifies, in my opinion, to its intellectual vitality. Maybe we should locate the reason for the continuing interest in such an idea in its role as 'an analytic category, a conceptual devise which, while pointing to a specific social phenomenon can also aid us in analyzing and researching the phenomenon' (Curran's emphasis, 1991, 2). In other words, the concept of the public sphere is still 'alive', as long as it is 'useful' as an analytical, self-reflexive category and not as an ultimate ideal, What we should be aware of is that this is only one category among many. In our electronic age no single public sphere, where public discussion on topics of general interest occur, exists between civil society and the state; instead there are many publics, hence any attempt to consider Habermas's concept as the normative core of civil society and democracy is ultimately inadequate.

Internet and electronic democracy

<7> Several scholars have welcomed the coming of computer mediated communication as a new opportunity for democratic progress (Ess 1996), by emphasizing how it would restore to all subjects the ability to put their "ideas, concerns and demands before all others" (Dertouzos, 1991). This new technology could also be "a way of revitalizing the open and widespread discussions among citizens that feed the roots of democratic society" (Rheingold, 1993). Rheingold and others have promoted the utopian vision of the electronic agora, an " Athens without slaves". For Rheingold 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 1993, 279).To some extent, and without edulcorating our Western classical heritage too much, the virtual square created by computer mediated communication can be considered a postmodern adaptation of Habermas's ideal agora where "in the discussion among citizens issues were made topical and took on shape' and 'citizens indeed interacted as equals with equals" ([1962] 1989, 4). In the multitude of blogs, news groups and in the other computer networks created by the Internet, citizens interact as equals among equals and produce discussions on topics of public relevance from their own personal experience (Knapp, 1997) as well as from frames offered by traditional media. The crucial issue here is the relationship between democracy and technology and whether new forms of communication have really formed a springboard to a more widespread and effective democracy. Benjamin Barber (1998) imagines three future scenarios for the relationship of information and communications technologies with democracy; the Pangloss scenario, the Pandora scenario and the Jeffersonian scenario. The danger of the Pangloss scenario--the term reminiscent of Dr Pangloss, the irrepressibly optimistic character in Voltaire's Candide - lays in technology's ability to serve corporate agendas. Under the Pandora scenario Barber imagines what would happen if government utilized new technologies for the purposes of control and repression. New technologies can facilitate the development of 'invisible and benign tyranny', with its ability to encroach on privacy, restrict freedoms and information flows. The Jeffersonian scenario imagines a future in which governments and citizens utilize and adapt new technologies to promote and facilitate participation in democratic society. According to Barber this scenario has the least potential of developing, yet is the most technologically feasible and possibly the most powerful aid for nurturing democracy. Barber's ideas sound convincing enough, although his terminology (the Pangloss, Pandora, and Jeffersonian scenarios) conjures up images of the golden age of Athenian and American democracy, thus echoing a sort of Western-centric Habermasian 'decline' theme. More compelling are the arguments put forward by Mark Surman in his "Wired Words: Utopia, Revolution, and the History of Electronic Highways" (1996). Surman sets out to explore "our recurrent tendency to view emerging communications technologies as the ticket to a new era of democracy, activism, economic equality, and human-scale media". In his words:

From Wired to Ladies Home Journal to The New York Times, there is a sense of consensus about the revolutionality of our technological times. Although we can't quite agree on what it is, many of us seem to be convinced that "the information highway" will somehow transform our society into a better place. Some think it will fix health care and education. Others argue that -- with enough wires, computers, and interactive television sets -- we can revive our ailing democracies. Still others propose an end to crime, a new age of entrepreneurism, or a revitalization of community life. But whatever we're saying, ... talking about revolution feels real good (Surman 1996).

Surman's deprecation of technological utopianism is particularly timing since the early Internet culture of the 1990s was a culture that had at its core a utopian premise. Worth mentioning is that already in 1989 James Carey, in his "The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution", had prophetically warned against a similar sort of technological idealism, what he called "the rhetoric of the technological sublime". Even Rheingold, albeit in the last chapter of his enthusiastic Virtual Communities (1993), recalls Carey's warning and is forced to acknowledge that while: "The great power of the idea of electronic democracy is that technical trends in communications technologies can help citizens break the monopoly on their attention that has been enjoyed by the powers behind the broadcast paradigm" its great weakness is "that it can be more easily commodified than explained. The commercialization and commoditization of public discourse is only one of the grave problems posed by the increasing sophistication of communications media. The Net that is a marvelous lateral network can also be used as a kind of invisible yet inescapable cage" (Rheingold 1993). On the question of the democratic ethos of virtual communities, so warmly advocated by Rheingold, opinions differ. Songok Han Thonton in his "Let Them Eat IT:
The Myth of the Global Village as an Interactive Utopia" is particularly keen on rehearsing the counter arguments as expressed by, among others, Carl Boggs. Boggs doubts that the IT infrastructure can empower ordinary people, thus countering "the demobilizing ethos of antipolitics". For him "The global village ...operates at the expense of real communities" (in Thonton 2002). In his "Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology", John Armitage, while endorsing Virilio's well known claim that "Totalitarianism is latent in technology", reminds us that "cybercultural technologies, like all technologies, are innately political". Personally, I support the view that technology is not a force outside history and politics, however, as I discussed elsewhere (Notaro 2005), I find Virilio's pessimistic essentialism highly questionable, the flip-side, as it were, of the technological idealism of "computer mystics" (to use Armitage's definition), like Jaron Lanier and John Perry Barlow.

<8> In conclusion, I think it is crucial that we come to understand what the Internet will do to the familiar notion of the public sphere as more and more people come on-line. Will more people automatically mean more (or better) democracy? Will we have better informed citizens, able to participate in rational debate? Or will we have a cacophony of misinformation and argument? On the whole, it appears that the Internet presents us with several paradoxes. On the one hand, the Net is unable to constitute an ideal public sphere because it tends towards inequality, irrational 'flaming'[2], and even threats of violence. Yet, at the same time, the culture of argument embedded in Net culture has the potential to draw users into democratic conversation. As John Palfrey argues, the Internet can attract new participants, foster new types of connections, make possible "a more interactive relationship between people and media" whose result "might be a more energized citizenry and 'semiotic democracy'"--the 'recoding' and 'reworking' of cultural meaning" (Palfrey 2004). All of this implies that our understanding of both the Internet and the public sphere needs to be reworked. New conceptions of the press and political activism will all have to be worked out on a 'glocal'[3] scale. We need a "continuously developing democracy", an "ongoing democracy" which is self-reflexive and not self-assured, critical of its own inner workings and not complacent. In Derrida's words, we can call it a "democracy to come", "because that is the only name for a political regime which declares its historicity and its perfectibility, in that it carries in its concept the dimension of inadequation and of that which is to come"[4]. This is a democracy that cannot be 'exported' anywhere, it originates in loco, it feeds itself on local cultures, it forges its own set of connections with emerging new technologies. Whilst I am skeptical of the hyped-up claims for the Internet's democratic potential, I do believe, however, that it does offer the possibility of the development of electronic agoras, public spheres, virtual communities and new forms of electronic democracy. It does also seem to me that these broad, and sometimes conflicting, visions of what the Internet has the potential to offer are, as Williams would put it, worth arguing about, fighting for and worth defending from major media conglomerates.

  The Blogosphere
1. It's amazing at how powerful a medium weblogs have become. It is the voice of the common folk after all. ;)
  Comment by Angela--September 20, 2004 @ 1:20 pm
2. Yeah, the longer everyone yammers about memos the less they focus on the wonderful war in Iraq.
  Comment by Jay--September 20, 2004 @ 1:22 pm
3. wow jay, could you be more stupid?
  Comment by Matt Margolis--September 20, 2004 @ 3:12 pm
  http://www.mattmargolis.com/blog/archives/2004/09/20/blogs-get-their-time-in-the-spotlight/

<9> As Rebecca Blood points out in her electronic piece " Weblogs: a history and perspective" (2000), in 1998 there were just a handful of sites of the type that are now identified as weblogs (so named by J. Barger in December 1997), then "suddenly a community sprang up". The rapid growth was mostly due to the availability of software which allowed anybody, with almost no technical knowledge at all, to publish her/his own blog. Blogs, short for web-logs, can follow different styles. In the first instance, as Blood observes, they provide "a valuable filtering function for their readers" by pre-surfing the web. This is accomplished in the following way:

Weblog editors sometimes contextualize an article by juxtaposing it with an article on a related subject; each article, considered in the light of the other, may take on additional meaning, or even draw the reader to conclusions contrary to the implicit aim of each. It would be too much to call this type of weblog "independent media," but ...By writing a few lines each day, weblog editors begin to redefinemedia as a public, participatory endeavor (Blood 2000 emphasis mone).

Then, once again, things change; in 1999 blogs start taking the form of a personal diary (a 'log') kept by the editor ('blogger'). They become a place for the individual blogger to express his/her more personal thoughts on any topic one could imagine. The downside was that:

Cults of personality sprung up as new blogs appeared, certain names appearing over and over in daily entries or listed in the obligatory sidebar of "other weblogs"... It was, and is, fascinating to see new bloggers position themselves in this community, referencing and reacting to those blogs they read most, their sidebar an affirmation of the tribe to which they wish to belong (Blood 2000 emphasis mine).

<10> Blood concludes her article by stressing the importance of blogs in an age like ours, when the deluge of data we are constantly exposed to is reducing "time and spaces in which to reflect", Rather emphatically she proclaims her strong belief "in the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readers from 'audience' to 'public' and from 'consumer' to 'creator'". Although "Weblogs are no panacea for the crippling effects of a media-saturated culture ...they are one antidote" (Blood 2000). Rebecca Blood is a blogger and, as critics often point out, bloggers have a tendency to fall into the self-glorification trap. Furthermore, it is arguable that blogs can be an antitode to a phenomenon (media-saturation) which they contribute to create (the current number of blogs is around nine millions!). Also, far from being oasis for reflections, blogs are increasingly feeling the pressure of corporate power (Notaro 2005). This does not mean, of course that blogs offering "time and spaces" for individual/collective reflection are difficult to find. Since 2000, when Blood wrote her article, blogs have undergone further changes both in style and content matter[5] Increasingly, they have caught the attention of the media and the academic community until September 11th, when the profiles of politically minded 'war bloggers' rose to new heights. More recently, Janet Kornblum noted how "Even blogs that aren't specifically political in nature contribute to the national--often international--dialog by creating a buzz". Famous is the case of Salam Pax's blog from Baghdad. It "didn't necessarily change the outcome of the war. But his postings on the mood of the city as it awaited the U.S. invasion riveted readers around the world" ( USA Today 7- 8-2003). Blogs have appeared on the fringe of several forms of mainstream public discourses and professional communication practices, but they seem to have exerted a particularly powerful and somewhat erosive force in mainstream journalism. This is hardly surprising if one considers that "a journal writer has origins in common with a journal-ist. They are members of the same communication family. And this is one reason that weblogs, which the press calls "online journals," are an event within journalism—the practice of it, as well as our ideas about it" (Rosen 2004). Jane B. Singer (2003) has published an interesting study on the journalistic aspect of blogging, focusing on the challenge to journalistic standards of professionalism by online journalists/bloggers. Still, given the general scarcity of scholarship on the subject, there is more work to be done if blogging remains a significant social phenomenon and not simply another Internet craze. What follows is an attempt at providing some differing viewpoints. I take what I would consider an established assessment on the blog universe (blogosphere) to launch some critical comments and to open up some new questions to reflect upon.

<11> A blog can be defined as low-cost approach to Web publishing. It is a regularly updated webpage using blogging software which functions as a database-driven, dynamic, content-focused shell (Carl 2003, 1-3). Into that space, single authors or groups can take any number of rhetorical stances and post creative and analytical source material and links, published with a reverse chronological order of most recent postings at the top, linked to a permanent archive through 'permalinks'. While web pages are static, blogs are part of an ongoing interactive conversation through 'comments' bulletin boards attached to each post (Boese 2004). Significantly, blogs have arisen in different language communities, involving people from a variety of regions with particular social and political contexts. The fact that people share a common language but do not necessarily come from the same region is a configuration that challenges traditionally defined time and space coordinates. This type of participation transcends the traditional North-South divide, at least when it comes to form and content, however access difficulties and Internet literacy still make up for what goes under the name of 'digital divide'[6]. This new form of socially shaped mediated content, that transcends the traditional concept of national border, presents a case of interactivity in a local/global public sphere that may re-energize democratic values. But are blogs, the "unedited, published voice of the people" (Winer 2003), a revolutionary new phenomenon? Not entirely, it would seem. "In a way, blogs are very old-fashioned", argues Glenn Reynolds, who hosts InstaPundit, a popular current events and opinion blog. "Blogs are reproducing something people thought for a long time we had lost, the discussion in the public sphere by the ordinary people" ( USA Today 7- 8-2003). Once again, the Habermasian 'decline' theme is evoked and an 'ideal' public sphere, ushered in by new digital technologies, is suggested. Interestingly, a "social movement has sprung up around blogs, giving the technical artifact meaning in a larger context, in what some call 'neighborhoods', 'blog ecosystems' "(Boese 2004) or the 'blogosphere' (Quick 2001). Testament to the constant interest in Habermas's model is the work of scholars like Andrew Ó Baoill (2004). In his "Weblogs and the Public Sphere" after having identified three key factors, inclusivity, disregard of external rank, and rational debate, he sets about to determine whether the blogosphere meets Habermas's ideal. His conclusions are worth quoting at length:

Given the advantages conferred on those who either know influential bloggers or can gain their attention, the system provides a poor implementation of the criterion that a public sphere should involve a disregard of rank. Although anyone can start a weblog, and the barriers are less than for some other Internet-based outlets, the need for inward-bound links to attract visitors to a site acts as an effective barrier against universal access. Thus, while the blogosphere is technically inclusive...the propagation network serves to privilege some over others... Further, the time commitment needed is a significant barrier that makes blogging most attractive to students, academics, and certain professionals. Finally, the method of story propagation means that discussion centers around a small number of topics, and disadvantages discussion of locally-focused topics, meaning that not all topics are equally subject to rational debate. There is hope that future generations of aggregation and reading technology will help to combat some of these issues.

Baoill's piece is an interesting exercise in Habermasian criticism, however, his conclusions are hardly surprising. The blogosphere cannot live up to Habermas's ideal model, for the simple reason that his model is exactly that, an ideal one. The blogoshere cannot but reflect the Internet's paradoxes highlighted in the previous section. More accurately, the blogosphere is a constellation of intellectual space(s), to paraphrase Quick's definition, where people can share their day-to-day experiences and ideas as they emerge and as they are contradicted, complicated, cohered, confirmed, co-opted, and confused by competing and continuous visual and cultural flows. It is interesting and at the same time ironic (in the context of Habermas's ideal of rational communication) that William Quick, in his definition, would identify 'logos' (the Greek word for rational argument) as 'the root word' for his newly coined term (Quick 2001). The etymology is obviously wrong, as it has been pointed out, but others have suggested that Quick's was a "clever play with words" (Bourne 2004). Either way, I think it is useful at this point to ask ourselves a few questions: why is the blogosphere expanding so quickly? Will blogs change the ways in which we relate to each other on and offline? Will they shape new forms of democratic participation? Given the space at my disposal, I will defer a discussion of the first two questions to further contributions, while offering a brief insight into the latest scholarship on political blogging.

<12> Over the past few years the Hansard Society, "an independent non-partisan organization working to promote effective parliamentary democracy" (http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/) has established the 'e-Democracy Programme' to examine "how democratic institutions can adapt to the information age" (http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/). Since January 2004, the Society's interest has been focused on a programme of research to assess the state of political blogging in the UK. The final report, aptly titled, "Political Blogs--Craze or Conventions" and completed in July 2004 is now available online at http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/node/view/189. The report, a good piece of empirically based research, is an interesting reading and its key findings are worth quoting at length:

(http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/node/view/189)

<13> The findings reflect the sort of mixed reactions expressed by the members of the public involved in the research and some familiar themes (the question of accessibility) already mentioned above. In his "Afterword" to the Report, Stephen Coleman, points out the paradox facing political blogging. While on one side, "politicians are needed because of the dispersed, character of the public which only expresses itself as a collectivity through representation", on the other, "As vehicle for self-presentation, blogs diminish people's need to be spoken for by others", ultimately "The problem facing politicians who blog is that they are professionally implicated in the very culture that blogging seeks to transcend" (Political Blogs 2004, 27). Once again, we are faced with two contrasting tendencies within the Net: the individual versus the collective. More to the point, blogs are presenting us with what I would call an electronic revival of the old feminist dictum 'the personal is the political'.[7] Blogs are vehicles to express our experiences, feelings, firm beliefs and frustrating uncertainties, however these are not just personal preferences but originate and are defined within broader political and social settings. They feel personal, and their details are personal, but their broad texture and character, are systemic. We have to be aware of such a political dimension in order to fight perils like censorship and surveillance or the individualistic trap, what Sunstein calls 'The Daily Me' (Republic.com 2001). In other words, rather than exposing ourselves to new ideas, we simply tailor our electronic environment to hear our own views reinforced over and over again. Blogs could thus become some sort of 'echo chambers' where people end up listening only to their own opinions.[8] In a recent interview, Derrick De Kerckhove responded to the question: "what are blogs' weaknesses and strengths?" observing that blogs are 'strong' when they are 'credible', in other words when people can rely on them as conveyors of sound information. On the other hand, they are ' weak' when they succumb to idle chitchat. However, if they work out new ways of organizing themselves, especially making use of the new wireless Internet access technology, they can contribute to the creation of intelligent masses, 'smart mobs'[9]. Smart mobs (2002) is also the title of one of Howard Rheingold's most recent books. In an interview connected to the launch of his book and in which the role of blogs and instant messaging in the battle for control over new media were discussed, Rheingold puts forward some well founded concern:

I never said that democracy and free expression has a good chance of determining or shaping the outcome of present regulatory and legislative battles. I did say that unless citizens understand the techno-political regime that is coming, what the interests are that are clashing over it, and what the power struggles are about, we don't have any chance at all.[10]

Such a concern is particularly worrying, coming from a writer who started off as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the 'second media age'. It should inspire us to put aside once and for all any utopian and technologically deterministic promise of a knowledge-log revolution and work harder towards widespread Internet literacy and easier accessibility. These are the necessary 'social rights', if technology will be a tool for social change. In the words of Stephen Coleman: "If there are democratic claims to be made for the Internet, their realization is closely linked to the capacity of ordinary people to enter, shape and govern it to a greater extent than with any previous communication medium. It is as an extension of media freedom that blogging should be taken seriousl"' (Political Blogs 2004, 30). Blogs might be "an extension of media freedom" as Coleman puts it, still they are not without constraints. Drezner and Farrell in their electronic piece "The Power and Politics of Blogs" (2004) call attention to the fact that:

powerful actors in politics and political communications have already moved down the learning curve in response to weblogs. Astute political actors can read blogs as easily as media professionals, and use that information to predict the direction of future news cycles. This also gives them the ability to develop strategies to counter or blunt the influence of blogs before media groundswells develop (20).

<14> Whatever the future holds for blogs--either a scenario of political co-optation or one in which their influence as independent opinion-makers will be preserved - the blogosphere, is a phenomenon of such importance for current debates about democratic deliberation, hardly anyone can afford to ignore it.

Pissing into the digital wind?

<15> Bruce Robbins, in the Introduction to The Phantom Public Sphere, writes: "the list of writers that announce the decline, degradation, crisis or extinction of the public is long and steadily expanding. Publicness, we are told again and again and again, is a quality that we once had but have now lost and that we must somehow retrieve" (1993, viii). Interestingly, such a rhetoric of 'loss' or 'decline' of the public sphere is common to writers who, in the Frankfurt tradition, warn against the negative sides of technology, and also to the ones who, from a neo-liberal perspective, enthusiastically embrace it. In this final section I wish to engage with the latter category, considering in particular an essay by Jon Katz, "Birth of a Digital Nation" (Wired 1997). Katz's piece is a perfect example of Wired magazine's style, it is emphatic, auto-celebratory, occasionally outrageous, but ultimately useful in order to feel the pulse, as it were, of the Net. Current political institutions are described by Katz as "remote", "unresponsive", "irrational", "awash in hypocritical god-and-values talk", "tired" and "dogma-driven" (Wired 1997, 2-3-7). The remedy for this abysmal situation: a new 'postpolitical philosophy'. The birth of the Digital Nation is thus announced in prophetic terms:

I saw the primordial stirrings of a new kind of nation--the Digital Nation--and the formation of a new postpolitical philosophy. This nascent ideology, fuzzy and difficult to define, suggests a blend of some of the best values rescued from the tired old dogmas--the humanism and liberalism, the economic opportunity of conservatism, plus a strong sense of personal responsibility and a passion for freedom (1, emphasis mine).

<16> One cannot help noticing how uncomfortably the word ideology sits in such an anti-dogmatic postpolitical philosophy, which still needs to feed itself on the old dogmas for its own definition Still, Katz's visionary fervor has known the torment of self-questioning. The toughest questions being: "Can we build a new kind of politics? Can we construct a more civil society with our powerful technologies? Are we extending the evolution of freedom among human beings? Or are we nothing more than a great, wired babble pissing into the digital wind?" (1) Self-doubt is soon put aside in favour of a more celebratory mood:

Where freedom is rarely mentioned in mainstream media anymore, it is ferociously defended - and exercised daily - on the Net.

Where our existing information systems seek to choke the flow of information through taboos, costs, and restrictions, the new digital world celebrates the right of the individual to speak and be heard - one of the cornerstone ideas behind American media and democracy.

Where our existing political institutions are viewed as remote and unresponsive, this online culture offers the means for individuals to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Where conventional politics is suffused with ideology, the digital world is obsessed with facts.

Where our current political system is irrational, awash in hypocritical god-and-values talk, the Digital Nation points the way toward a more rational, less dogmatic approach to politics.

The world's information is being liberated, and so, as a consequence, are we (1).

What is celebrated here is the death of some kind of ideology and the birth of a new one, more factual, based on individual freedom and true American values. This is not just the birth of a digital nation, this is the birth of a digital world that in such values, apparently, recognize itself. This is nothing short of a revolution and, in the theoretical medley which make up this piece, even the ghost of Hannah Arendt is evoked to remind us of the right ingredients for it:

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt wrote that two things are needed to generate great revolutions: the sudden experience of being free and the sense of creating something. The Net is revolutionary in precisely those ways. It liberates millions of people to do things they couldn't do before. Men and women can experiment with their sexual identities without being humiliated or arrested. Citizens can express themselves directly, without filtering their views through journalists or pollsters. Researchers can get the newest data in hours, free from the grinding rituals of scientific tradition. The young can explore their own notions of culture, safe from the stern scrutiny of parents and teachers (4).

<17> But who are exactly the new Digital Citizens? They form a social class made up of "young, educated, affluent" people. Since their education is often "unconventional and continuous....the ideas of the postpolitical young remain fluid" (3). As for their values, "they tend to be libertarian, materialistic, tolerant, rational, technologically adept, disconnected from conventional political organizations...not politically correct" (3). If we were in any doubt that this new class was an intellectual elite in the traditional sense, well we can be relieved in knowing that "They share a passion for popular culture and on Monday mornings have no problem in talking about movies or TV shows", since these are "not merely forms of entertainment but means of identity" (3) But how would civic discussion work on the Net? Would it be the sort of rational debate we have come to associate with the Habermasian ideal? Although Katz has to concede that "Today, the idea that the Net offers a new sort of rationalism is a stretch" (6), this is no reason to deny the possibility. There are some specialized areas, like academic or scientific forums, where "the emergence of a new rationalism is easier to see" (7). Hence the question: "If this notion works for science, could it work for politics?"(7) Once again, Katz admits the difficulty, "It's a big leap from a medium that moves facts around the world to one that influences values", only to affirm its feasibility, "But I've seen the process work; it can be done" (7). Katz's piece seems to confirm, among other things, that the old revolutionary ideal has been transfigured in a sort of 'myth of subversion' appealing to both anarchists and neo-liberals. In Mark Dery's words, "It is alive and well in heady sub-cultural dreams of Temporary Autonomous Zones, Islands in the Net, and other anarcho-topias, online and off' as well as, 'albeit drenched in irony, in Wired's turned-on, booted-up, jacked-in pseudo-revolution for managerial professionals". The danger, for Dery, consists in the fact that "Wired's laissez-faire visions of a nation-state downsized right out of existence have captured some ears inside the boardroom and the beltway" (quoted in Lovink 1996).

<18> Academic quarters seem to be willing listeners too. In a recent interview, Derrick De Kerckhove declared that he imagines a future with no state as we know it today, but only a "government on demand" where all the services that citizens (customers?) need are within reach of a click on the mouse.[11] Then, De Kerckove argues, we could really do without traditional parties and ideologies, especially since their usefulness is pretty much in doubt today. Also, this would not be such a dramatic event, for nowadays we already experience a dual existential dimension. On one side we exist as individuals, made up of flesh and bones, on the other we are 'digital persons', whose lives enfold on the Net. De Kerckove's final remarks underline the growing synergy of humans and technology which, in turn, has generated an increasing interest in so-called posthuman philosophies (Hayles 1999) and posthuman politics (Gray 2001). The question remains whether "A cyborgian public realm" which includes "a whole variety of non-human organisms, yet-to-be-named assemblages of things and multitudinous chains of agency... actually represent a political advance over an anthropocentric public sphere grounded in some workable variant of inter-subjective understanding"(Gandy 2004). If anything, "The increasing significance of non-human decision-making marks a radical technological intrusion into those spheres of human cognition both Frankfurt School and Heideggerian philosophical traditions have sought to protect" (Gandy 2004).

<19> This essay has often lingered upon questions, unresolved contradictions, paradoxes, hence it is only too appropriate that it should end on a similar interrogative mode. Do a pervasive Internet connectivity and technologies for discussion (blogs, news bulletins etc.) change the degree to which people can participate in governance? Will emerging social technologies facilitate a more democratic system of government? What is the appropriate role of technology in political campaigns? I think one could safely argue that there is nothing inevitably doomy or intrinsically virtuous about the Internet and that democracy, as we know it, will certainly have to undergo some serious permutations, in order to face up to the challenges of a post-political world. However, if it gives up on its claims of infallibility, democracy still constitutes the best firewall we have against the political dangers of unchecked neo-liberalism. We have to resist the computer mystics' utopian calls, as well as the apocalyptic prophesies of the technophobics, and aim instead for easy and widespread access to communication and media technologies. While Habermas's ideal public space was mostly an urban and, in many ways, elitist phenomenon, we have to make sure that the civil discourse which flourishes along the arcades of our electronic polis will be more inclusive than its illustrious predecessor. What happens next is not written in the stars, it is only up to us to determine.

 

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Notes

[1] Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the main standard organization for the Internet, an open, international community of network designers, operators, vendors and researchers concerned with the evolution of the internet architecture and its smooth operation. [^]

[2] Flaming means sending harsh abusive mail.  It includes such things as name-calling, public criticism of another member of the group, personal attacks, baiting, raising issues, or responding to posts in a deliberately inflammatory manner. [^]

[3] On the meaning of the word glocal see <http://jolo.jmk.su.se/students/global04/mediaday/glocal/glocaljour.htm> [^]

[4] The interview with Derrida from which this quote is taken is available at <http://culturemachine.tees.ac.uk/Cmach/Backissues/j002/Articles/art_derr.htm> [^]

[5] An interesting development has been the arrival in the blogosphere of vBlogs, short for video blogs, and photo blogs. To know more visit <http://www.vblogcentral.com/> and <http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vog/>. [^]

[6] See the interesting article by M. Warschauer "Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide" at <http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue7_7/warschauer/>.

And the Digital Divide project whose aim is to provide "equitable and meaningful access to technology" so that "all children step into the 21st Century" available at < http://www.pbs.org/digitaldivide/>. Bruce Sterling makes an important point when he says that "digital alphabetization is an important component of alphabetization itself". Interview with Giuseppe Granieri in Il Sole 24 Ore, 26 February 2004. [^]

[7] Coleman notes the personal/political nexus, but fails to mention its origins in the political culture of the Sixties, a political culture of which the Internet still bears many traces. The phrase is commonly attributed to Carol Hanisch in her essay "The Personal is Political" in Redstockings collection *Feminist Revolution*, March 1969, pp.204-205. [^]

[8] For opposing views on the idea of the 'echo chambers' see David Weinberger "Is there an Echo in Here?" 20 February 2004 available at <http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/02/20/echo_chamber/index_np.html?x> and "Echo and the Bunny Men" at <http://www.emptybottle.org/glass/2004/02/echo_and_the_bunnymen.php> [^]

[9] The interview is available (in Italian) at <http://www.lastampa.it/_web/_INTERNET/meglio_del_web/internet/archivio/internet041026a.asp> [^]

[10] Interview available at <http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/website/find.cgi?string=site~Corante>. On the specific issue of blogging as a way to foster new forms of citizenship see T. Dunlop, "If You Build It They Will Come. Bloogging and the New Citizenship", at <http://evatt.labor.net.au/publications/papers/91.html>. Dunlop argues "that the distinction between "the" intellectuals and the citizens is often overstated and tends to be anti-democratic, assigning the vast mass to the passive role of spectator in most societal debates. And here's where blogging comes in". [^]

[11] The interview is available (in Italian) at <http://www.unita.it/index.asp?SEZIONE_COD=HP&TOPIC_TIPO=&TOPIC_ID=40376>. For examples of e-government see Mattia Miani's "Civic Networks: a comparative view". [^]

 



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