Whither the Public Sphere:
Prospects for Cybersphere

The challenges facing cybersphere

The direct democracy predictions for on-line communication are so rapturous they inevitably arouse suspicion. As McChesney has said, there is a dystopian potential equal to every utopian vision of technology in general, and computers in particular (in press, pp. 19-22).

First, if not foremost, among the challenges facing cybersphere is diffusion of the Internet. Although estimates of its users range from 5 million to 20 million in the United States and from 20 million to 50 million worldwide (Ivry, 1995), Internet access still is far from the near-universality of telephones, radio, TV or print news. Research on the early days of other communication technologies has shown they became a reckoning force after spreading to a "critical mass" of about 10 percent of the population. Internet usage in the United States is fast approaching that threshold, based on an estimated growth rate of 1 million new users per month. But Internet access and usage are not spread evenly across the U.S. population. About 80 percent of Internet users are white males, whose median age is 31 and median annual income is in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, according to recent studies by Wired magazine, the White House and MIT (Ivry, 1995).

Other research has debunked the myth that girls and women do not have as much aptitude for using computers as their male counterparts do, but the females do get less encouragement to use computers from their parents, teachers and peers. While price is becoming less of a barrier to computer ownership, some low income people, minorities and even homemakers may face another obstacle -- overcoming their oral traditions. Historically, people from oral traditions have tended to become part of the underclass in societies based on written epistemology. A final barrier to effective on-line communication is the imperative for critical thinking. Amid the vast, diverse sources of information on the Internet, people will have to take more initiative, compare "facts" and judge credibility for themselves rather than relying on professional journalists (Newhagen & Levy, 1995).

The enormity of the Internet, coupled with its decentralized architecture and explosive growth, will continue to present challenges to establishing an inclusive cybersphere. So far, software developments such as Netscape and hardware advances such as 28,800-baud modems have kept files flowing, but bumper- to-bumper traffic on the infobahn is becoming more common, as anyone who has used the University of Maryland's WAM system between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. can tell you.

An opposing concern will emerge when the nation's communications infrastructure advances to the point where fiber optics and/or satellite dishes deliver the Internet to homes -- at speeds up to 800 times faster than a 28,800-baud modem. Then, as with the recent repeal of federal speed limits on highways, speeds on the information highway may reach dangerous levels reminiscent of the phantasmagoric scene near the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The human brain, like all network systems, is limited in its ability to regulate constant input and output at high speeds (Dechert, 1966). The result of such pressure is instability in the network, which could be manifest any way from headaches to faulty reasoning to insanity.

As the speed and storage capacities of the Internet grow, so will its potential for use as a panopticon. This concept, developed by French postmodernist Michel Foucault (1977), refers to a prison constructed in such a way that one guard has all the inmates in view, but none of them can see him or anyone else. Theoretically, it is the ultimate control device; isolating subjects makes them passive and pliable (Spears & Lea, 1994, p. 438). Already, computers are used to keep tabs on many people who work all day at terminals, such as telephone operators, airline reservationists and phone-order sales clerks. Netscape and many e-mail and server systems such as WAM also give operators the capability of tracing every step its users take on the Internet. And software engineers have yet to devise a totally secure means of making credit purchases or electronic fund transfers over the Internet.

The constant threat of being under surveillance certainly runs counter to the concept of public sphere. It is more in line with the spiral of silence theory, which hypothesizes that mass media give people a "false consciousness" about the public support for their opinions, leading them to fall silent when they are perceived to be outside the mainstream (Noelle-Neumann, 1974). On-line discussions would seem to be particularly susceptible to the spiral of silence, because if anything, it's easier for people to gauge support for their opinions amid a tangible flow of text than in a group conversation or media milieu.

Alternatively, some research indicates computer communicators are less influenced by norms and show less concern with how they compare to others (Kiesler, 1986). But Kiesler still found that computer-mediated communication did not work as well as face-to-face for building consensus, because computer communicators felt greater anonymity, less empathy, less guilt and less status-conscience. Also, the ethereal nature of e-mail led them to think less about their messages before sending them.

"True, the Net allows people to talk as equals. But rational argument rarely prevails, and achieving consensus is widely seen as impossible," Mark Poster observed in the November 1995 issue of Wired. "These are symptoms of the fundamentally different ways identity is defined in the public sphere and on the Net."

Lastly, we can look to uses and gratification theory for further challenges to establishment of the cybersphere. Despite all the government and issue-oriented information available on it, the Internet will be used predominantly for socializing, entertainment and commercialism, judging by the development of radio, television, cable TV and the telephone. Every new technology has planned effects, transient effects and unintended social effects, Kiesler noted (1986, p. 46), but it's the unintended social effects that are longest lasting.

"To answer the question of whither the Internet," adds McChesney (in press, p. 3) "one need only determine where the greatest profits are to be found, for that will be its future." So far, the company to make the most money on the Internet is Netscape, which netted more than $1 billion for its owners with an initial stock offering that opened at $19 per share and skyrocketed to over $137 a share in less than four months (Mathews, 1995). Netscape is primarily marketing its product as a way for companies to help consumers locate and view their commercial sites on the World Wide Web. The information superhighway is fast becoming lined with garish billboards and cybermalls. This development has the tacit approval of the Clinton administration, which so far has done little to ensure universal access to the Internet or to reduce the resale of government information, an industry which grew during the Reagan- Bush years to generate $1.5 billion in annual revenue for private vendors (Margulius, 1989).

In other words, the Internet increasingly looks and acts like the traditional, business-dominated, consumption-oriented mass media that helped deflate the public sphere. Rather than supply a marketplace of ideas where all voices are equal, the mass media have helped install market forces based on the concept of one dollar, one vote instead of one person, one vote. Network television programming demonstrates that markets give people what they want -- within the range of what's most profitable to produce (McChesney, in press, p. 10). Rather than supply a marketplace of ideas where all voices are equal, the mass media have helped install market forces based on the concept of one dollar, one vote instead of one person, one vote. "A consumer in a market," Barbara Ehrenreich says (1995, p. 8), "can never be more than a stunted caricature of a citizen in a genuine democracy." And the way it looks now, the Internet may never be more than a Trojan horse in the quest for a genuine public sphere.

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