Monday, October 19, 2009

The public sphere at #sciwri09

One idea that I found particularly interesting is Poster's claim that "the internet is above all a decentralized communication system...Anyone hooked up to the Internet may initiate a call, send a message that he or she has composed to one or multiple recipients, and receive messages in return."

To me, one of the key problems w/ this argument is that this particular communications system is only accessible by those "hooked up to the Internet." While the number of people with no Web is at its lowest point in history - particularly in the West (developed countries) - those in the developing world generally don't fare nearly as well in terms of access. Since one of Habernas' central ideas is that the "quality of society depends on our capacity to communicate, to debate and discuss," the fact that only a fraction, albeit a large one, of the world's population can communicate via the Internet seems to indicate that the Internet does not in fact contribute a "new quality to the public sphere" in all areas of the world. It does in the United States, but not so much globally.

Boeder gets at this notion that the public sphere - much like the Internet - is transnational yet not global , but his argument begs the question whether the Internet is really a public sphere as defined by Habernas. To Habernas, the public sphere involved face-to-face discussions about the important issues of the day. He described it as "an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action." (Wikipedia, public sphere) Boeder, on the other hand, argues that the public sphere is and has always been "more virtual: It's meaning lies in its abstraction...groups and individuals can indeed accomplish change by communicative action, and digital communications technology may empower them to do so."

I would argue, much like Poster, that the Internet is a modern-day public sphere for a number of reasons, chiefly that the "prevailing hierarchies of race, class and especially gender" don't matter. There is no social hierarchy on the Web. Instead, anyone can be anybody they want by merely stating that they are that gender, age, race, nationality, etc. Yes, power relations still exist in the sense that not everyone has equal access to the Internet and some only have access courtesy of a governmental or educational entity, but the general principle that everyone on the Internet is viewed as an equal seems to hold true.

This has become more apparent the past few days as I've been attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Austin. Probably 50 percent, maybe more, of the attendees have been tweeting the meeting. The rest have either refrained from entering the Twitter/FB/YouTube world, or like me, got away from home without their laptops and/or Twitter-enabled PDA's. What I find intriguing about the two groups is the fact that those who are tweeting from the meeting have formed an online community in which they're discussing good lectures, interesting points made by speakers, key ideas... they're helping shape future meetings and providing input on the current one for meeting planners/attendees and those who couldn't make it. In essence, they're using the communicative tool of the Internet to support and enable change, leaving the rest of the attendees essentially out of the process/conversation.

Another interesting trend I've noticed addresses Poster's argument that everyone is equal on the Internet. A cursory glance of those using the hashtag #sciwri09 definitely supports this theory. For example, unless the individual indicated their name/position/title in their Twitter profile, I didn't necessarily know before the conference whether someone I was following was a PhD astrophysicist or a fellow public information officer. @physicsdavid is but one example - and someone I urge you all to follow. (He participated in a great panel discussion on social media.)

Overall, I think that Poster was pretty much right on when he claimed that the Internet is a "decentralized communication system" but only to the point in which he's speaking about those with Internet access. Without Internet access, people have no way to enter into this modern-day public sphere and their lack of access/participation undoubtedly has at least a small implication on how our global society operates and will continue to operate.

That's all for now. Back to #sciwri09. See you all next week.


John Kay said...

Thanks for writing to us “while on a assignment.” Years ago, more Americans had televisions than had telephones. Now, more Americans have telephones than have the internet. Around the world many people do not have a computer, much less internet access. The media of the public sphere have to consist of more than just the internet, but the internet is best.
Your observation about online identity is true. For example, before last week’s exercise, I wrongly thought that the writer of “Race Track Hollow” was a man. I narrow the site to the left column so that I can enlarge the print, and I missed the female avatar and description on the right.

mglev said...

Wish I was there! I like your point of reference or lack of reference to sex - discourse can be unisex on the internet. I was going to use the word (adrogeny but found it had a male connotation). I digress. Anyway, I thought this was an interesting culture shift that I am we seek to be unique, we continue to merge into one... interesting

Aline McKenzie said...

I got just the opposite take from Rob Irion, head of the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program, who's also attending the conference.

He posted on Facebook that he sees the live Tweeting as divided attention that lowers the quality of the actual event.

And hooray for the triumph of intellect on the Internet -- I made a good friend in a chatroom years ago when I made a pun in Latin and he corrected it. We're still in touch.