By Howard Rheingold:
I recently asked Jurgen Habermas in a public forum what his current opinion is about the state of the public sphere, now that the broadcast era has been supplanted by the many-to-many media that enable so many people to use the Internet as a means of political expression. He blew off the question without explanation, and a little further investigation into the very sparse pronouncements he has made in this regard has led me to understand that he simply does not understand the Internet. His ideas about the relationship between public opinion and democracy and the role of communication media, and the commodification and manipulation of political opinion via public relations, are still vitally important. But I think it’s important now to build new theories and not simply to rely on Habermas, who is signalling his ignorance of the meaning of the changes in the infosphere that have taken place in recent decades. He did his part in his time, but the ideal public sphere he described — a bourgeois public sphere dominated by broadcast media — should not be taken as the model for the formation of public opinion in 21st century democracies. Some background on my interest in this subject and Habermas’ personal opinion follows. And then I’ll briefly describe my recent encounter with the man himself.