Whither the Public Sphere:
Prospects for Cybersphere


"I exist in the hope that these memoirs, in some manner, I know not how, may find their way to the minds of humanity in Some Dimension, and may stir up a race of rebels who shall refuse to be confined to limited Dimensionality."
-- The Square in "Flatland," p. 82

In Edwin A. Abbott's 1884 allegory "Flatland," circles are high priests in the land of two dimensions, and a sphere is treated like God, a "master from Space." The circle is hallowed because it is multifaceted, with an infinite number of sides and no corners where anyone can be shunted. The sphere extends this richness to a third dimension, evoking the encompassing, engaging, enlightenment of the sun. The public sphere is held in similar regard by Jurgen Habermas, the German social scientist who explicated this concept in his 1962 book, "Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit," which appeared in English in 1979 as, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere." Habermas saw the public sphere as the foundation for critiquing democratic society (Holub, 1991). "The public sphere is a realm in which individuals gather to participate in open discussions. Potentially, everyone has access to it; no one enters into discourse in the public sphere with an advantage over another" (Holub, 1991, p. 3).

The origins of the public sphere are usually traced back some 2,500 years, to the city-states of Greece. There, democracy operated in its purest form, with all citizens voting on policies that were discussed and debated in agoras, the open-air markets that became the locus of the public sphere (Gumpert & Drucker, 1992). Colonial Americans revived that tradition with their New England town hall meetings, but Habermas and other social scientists lament the withering of the public sphere over the last 150 years. There have been occasional, partial sightings of the public sphere in this century -- I think of Robert LaFollette and the Progressive Party's conventions in the University of Wisconsin Armory, Martin Luther King's 1964 March on Washington, Woodstock and the recent Million Man March. There also have been mass-mediated public gatherings such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats," the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Watergate hearings, Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings and even the O.J. Simpson trial. These events did not involve direct interaction between the principals and the public; they sparked interaction between members of the public. Yet none of these events evolved into a sustained, inclusive foundation for critiquing our democratic society.

The purpose of this paper is to synthesize explanations for the withering of the public sphere, and examine the much-touted prospects for its rebirth in cyberspace; i.e. as "cybersphere."

The Internet is "a last hope for democracy as we know it," says William Gibson (in Harris, 1995, p. 49), author of "Neuromancer," the seminal science fiction novel on cyberspace. While not quite so desperate sounding, President Clinton and, especially, Vice President Gore have invested much time and fanfare in the Internet. They have opened a White House home page, made thousands of government documents available on the World Wide Web through "Fed World," and supported House Speaker Newt Gingrich's initiative to post virtually all congressional printed matter on the Web's "Thomas" server, named for Thomas Jefferson. Also, independent nonprofit organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology have begun posting megabytes of information about what citizens can do on-line to enhance their participation in governmental and community matters.

But where Gibson and Gore see hope, Jacques Ellul and other critical theorists mainly see hopelessness and digital despair. They see the Internet becoming a vast wasteland of extended consumerism at best, a powerful new hegemonic tool for the government and elite at worst (Christians, 1976). Before expounding on these prospects, however, I want to back up, elucidate the definition of public sphere, and look closer at its decline.

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