Sunday, March 22, 2009

More public sphere

I’ll begin with The Networked Public Sphere. I think this folks really took the whole concept to another level, but I don’t know what that level is. For example, they noted that networks have changed severely: “…they have loosened sub-systemic dependencies, increased flows of communication from below, and created greater instability throughout the entire system.” (p. 9), but they never take a stand; they don’t say that’s a good thing. Isn’t the new system a bit more democratic, even with all its flaws?
Then they start discussing the need for media independence and media reflexivity as the two main prerequisites for media to be able to facilitate deliberation (p. 10). They go on to say, basically, that such a status is rather impossible, so why discuss the real-life potential of something that can’t happen?
A little later, they bring in the idea that “the political system depends on the public sphere’s capacity to generate legitimacy” (p. 11). This part was very interesting, especially the idea that legitimacy can’t be bought or blackmailed. Nevertheless, the intricate relationships between power structures and agents with the capacity to generate public opinions (i.e. opinion leaders) is always threatening that statement. If we have such a multiplicity of public spheres, how can we be sure that hegemonic powers aren’t somehow manipulating more than a few? Maybe it sounds a tad like a conspiracy theory, but powerful interests are not usually very vocal about their doings. Also, this relationship is really a threesome; the media is always in the middle. If we accept that, can frames and angles be bought or blackmailed? I think we all know the answer to that one.
On page 15, the really interesting part begins: online communication. Now we have younger people basically living online and the authors take the positivist approach: “The lifeworld of young people is increasingly merging with online space, and the effects of this “secondary” lifeworld interact systematically with the primary lifeworld of socialization” (p. 15). I can say that a bullet quickly merged with someone’s face, but that way of putting it makes it sounds way less painful and tragic that saying someone got shot in the mug. Younger generations are truly disregarding, in many cases, that primary lifeworld in favor of what they called the “secondary” one. What “person” shall participate in online public spheres, the real “me” or the “digital me”? What are the consequences of my ideal-based “digital me” generating public opinion?
They also say: “Some have claimed that the online space of interpersonal communication forms a new type of public space, especially for young people, with different dynamics that cannot be simply compared to those of twentieth century modernity” (p. 17). First of all, blame me, you cowards, I’m saying it. Second, moving from modernity to hyperreality, skipping postmodernity as if it was just a small puddle, is a bold move. Interpersonal communication is now so different that it probably needs a new name. The authors also discuss the fact that social movements have “moved online” (p. 16). Being one of the areas of research I’m currently interested in, all I can say is that the effect of that, so far, has truly been limited.
Finally, I want to bring into the discussion the idea that “networked communication has begun to surround the traditional media system” (p. 19). What's the effect? Is the “agenda-setting power of the traditional media” (p. 19) truly loosing its power?
Let us move on to the Hermes piece. On page 29 he addresses the fact that young people don’t read newspapers and that that could be a “matter of concern”. Finally! What if the public sphere, instead of moving online, simply fades out as the last news/politics-conscious folks die out? Also, Hermes discusses ordinary people and their appearance in “new roles both as producers and as faces in the news” (p. 29), but immediately clarifies that “this has had little political impact” (p. 30). Is that because, as soon as they entered the media, the lost all their “public” power? Is it because we look at them differently if they’re on that side of the screen?
The polls part was also interesting. Some of the best reading I’ve done on the subject was a book by Giovanni Sartori titled Homo Videns: Remote-Controlled Society. In the book, Sartori deconstructs the psychological process behind polling and what people answer. Spiral of silence has a lot to do with it, but the greatest critique in the book is to the fact that we usually just walk out there and poll anyone who would like to participate… and never mind if they’re complete idiots on the subject. Hermes also believes they have “little political meaning or impact” (p. 30). So why do we keep on doing them?
On page 33 he discusses the fact that the knowledge class has “preferred to understand drama, literature and indeed popular culture as areas of determination …rather than areas of production.” Can’t we look at them as both?
Last but not least, his discussion of the way we relate to popular cultural texts in a “more real” way than politics (p. 37) sort of brigs together the whole idea that the public sphere is always looked at as being related to politics, when it can be two guys having a beer, two women chatting in the gym, people watching a movie, students discussing a game or a club of fans of…something. Nevertheless, I do have a little issue with the idea that we are fascinated with this popular cultural texts because “they allow us to fantasize about the ideals and hopes we have for society, as well as ponder what we fear” (p. 38). Do we really want our society to be like the one in the movies, TV series and videogames we consume with such passion?
The Heikkilä and Kunelius article was a bit too long for my taste and I would’ve liked to read more answers from their interviews. The fact that they were semi-structured means that some very interesting and unexpected avenues of discussion opened up, but I don’t think we got to read about them. I don’t have much to say about the reading except that I’ve lived in different countries and the US is always news. We could blame it of the fact that US politics affect the world. We could also agree that it’s more “an economic rather than political” issue (p. 71), but the fact is that what happens in the US usually has some impact in the world. Last but not least, we could argue that the US is constantly producing goods that further strengthen its already powerful cultural imperialism. Why not all of them rolled into one?
Finally, the Schudson piece was very entertaining. The idea that conversation “has no end outside itself” (p. 299) is something I can agree with, although not all the time. How can we classify conversations? The “two kinds of conversations” thing (p. 302) strikes me as something that needs to be applied to online communities. I believe that, when faced with the infinite amount of information and sites online, people gravitate towards what they know and like. In that sense, the Internet helps reinforce their ideas, turning the hope for a more diverse, informed and accepting public sphere on its head. Also, the author states that “what democratic conversations are about comes from public sources” and that the main source has historically been newspapers (p. 305), so what happens now? Are important conversations less and less as younger generations turn their backs to newspapers? Also, if “democracy creates democratic conversation more than conversation naturally creates democracy” (p. 306), how bad are we ignoring none-democratic societies? What about conversations that, for political reasons, have to be kept quiet, do they count?

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