Whither the Public Sphere:
Prospects for Cybersphere

Deflating the public sphere

The most obvious drag on the public sphere is logistical. It was one thing to call together a Greek city-state or New England town, but it's quite another to round up a nation of 250 million people spread over 3.6 million square miles. A related problem is the frontier mentality that swept across America in the 19th century. The manifest destiny mindset nurtured independence in citizens, reducing their inclination to meet in public spheres and build consensus.

Even in Germany, the bourgeois public sphere never really developed like Immanuel Kant conceived of it. The problem was, middle class property owners were focused on private markets, not public experience (Negt & Kluge, 1993). They floated loans for public works than enhanced their property, sought contracts to supply the army and encouraged gunboat diplomacy to expand their markets. But to them, the public sphere was mainly a threat to their private interests. The same might be said today of Bill Gates, the Microsoft Co. founder and chairman who is the richest person in America. In a recent interview with The Washington Post ("The Mind," 1995), Gates lamented having to keep lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and said he will not become a major philanthropist for another 20 or 30 years -- not until he's sure his billions will outlast his lifetime and those of the children he's yet to have.

Gates' attitude is typical of the 19th century tycoons who transformed America from a rural, agrarian nation to an agglomeration of teeming, industrial cities. Besides precluding whole-town gatherings, industrialization also led to increased mobilization, scattered families, and greater atomization; i.e. gesselschaft. Industrialization also spawned the condition David Potter chronicled in his 1954 book, "People of Plenty." It created excess supply, which could only be absorbed through additional consumption. The need for greater consumption spawned the modern advertising and market research industries. They, in turn, gave rise to today's consumer society, where televised home shopping is a billion-dollar-a-year business and nuclear families devolve into buying units (Gumpert & Drucker, 1992, p. 186). Amid all the private spending, little thought is given to the public sphere.

Ironically, the world's first enclosed mall was built in 1956 as a substitute downtown and agora-like meeting place for the bourgeois Minneapolis suburb of Edina. Today, Southdale has been remodeled beyond recognition and endlessly expanded in an effort to compete with the nearby Mall of America, which attracts more than 1 million consumers per year.

Mass media, meanwhile, give voice to the advertising industry, distract and atomize the audience further with consumption-oriented programming (Lipsitz, 1991), and increasingly prioritize their corporate earnings above traditional news values. Twentieth century mass media have become profit centers, colonized by the corporate sector, "thereby losing their capacity to provide the basis for the independent public sphere so necessary for meaningful democracy," said McChesney (in press, p. 16). "Capitalism's two inherent and negative traits for democracy -- class stratification and the demise of civic virtue in the face of commercial values -- are enhanced in the new global regime. There is nothing short of a wholesale assault on the very notion of democracy, as the concept of people gathering, debating and devising policy has been supremely truncated."

Industrialism, market research, advertising, consumerism and media concentration are all part of what Ellul calls La technique, which he defines as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human knowledge" (Christians, 1976, p. 2). Subtlely, la technique destructs pluralism and the public sphere, Ellul says, because the quest for efficiency leads to "adjustment conformity" and "sociological propaganda":

"For example, when an American producer makes a film, he has certain definite ideas he wants to express, which are not intended to be propaganda. Rather, the propaganda element is in the American way of life with which he is permeated and which he expresses in his film without realizing it" (Christians, 1976, p. 5).

Ellul also blames modern news logic for the decline of democracy and the public sphere. Rather than educate readers and help them discern truth, he says mass media tend to drown them in a torrent of disconnected, superficial events, with about 80 percent of the subjects different everyday (Christians, 1976, p. 12).

Lastly, another contemporary trend that sometimes deflates the public sphere is multiculturalism, according to John Higham, an American Studies scholar at John Hopkins University. What started as a laudable, or at least benign, effort to recognize the contributions of nondominant groups has devolved in many quarters into a militant separatist movement, he says (1993, p. 205). Distinctiveness is emphasized over unity, exacerbating the other obstacles to democratic decision making and consensus building. Radical multiculturalists focus on the socioeconomic needs of nondominant groups while rejecting assimilation and even pluralism -- along with the public sphere.

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