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CPSR Newsletter Vol 18, Number 3
Volume 18, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2000

What is the Public Sphere? by Doug Schuler
The subtitle of the "Shaping the Network Society" Symposium is "The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace." Similarly the final declaration in the Seattle Statement contains the suggestion that "a new public sphere is required." This essay attempts to describe what the "public sphere" is and why it's important for computer professionals and others concerned about the future of communication systems.

In 1962 the philosopher Jürgen Habermas of the renowned "Frankfurt School" in Germany, coined the expression Offentlichkeit, or "public sphere" in English. Although an English translation of his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, wasn't available until 1989, the concept of a public sphere soon became one of (if not the most) important concept in communication studies. In contrast to other concepts in communication studies (like "cultural imperialism" or media hegemony) the concept of public sphere is posited as a positive one, a mode of communication seen by many to be a desirable and attainable state of affairs. It is an idealized communication venue (or "theater" suggests Nancy Fraser) into which all people can freely enter. It is, again ideally, through the discussions in this "public sphere" that important civic decisions are made and, as such, it is seen as a fundamental aspect of democratic systems.

As it turns out, Habermas' concept was flawed in many respects, as he himself acknowledged. For one thing, the one instance of a public sphere (namely liberal bourgeois society during the 1800's) that Habermas brought to light wasn't really a public sphere at all. The poor were excluded, as were migrants, laborers, and women. The "public sphere" that Habermas identified was more of a "gentlemen's club" according to one observer. The concept, moreover, is imprecise; people couldn't agree on its meaning; it was "contested" as the academics are fond of saying. Habermas himself, didn't explain exactly what one was, nor did he offer a theory of how to build one. Also, is there a single, central "public sphere" that everybody in the world would or could use? Maybe there are dozens of spheres, hundreds, or millions as some people have suggested. And are there needs for alternative public spheres whose raison d'être is to challenge the assumptions and specifics of the more orthodox, and more powerful, public spheres? What are the consequences of these limitations? Do they render the concept useless or can it be salvaged in some way? And, more importantly for us, how can computer professionals and others interested in social responsibility use the concept effectively to help steer technology to make it better serve human needs? How, for example, does it help us think about the Internet and its ongoing evolution? Can it be used to spur activism on a large scale? A global scale?

To answer these questions, let's return to the concept itself and to the general consensus as to its meaning. A public sphere seems to be characterized by three main features. The first is that it refers to communication in a broad sense. Thus coffee shops, public hearings, town meetings, and other places where people interact with one another face-to-face are included under this criterion. Newer forms such as newspapers, broadcast media, and new venues on the Internet can also be a part under some circumstances. (Also, lest we forget, the institutions--of varying audiences, resources, objectives, and habits--are generally responsible for better or for worse, the quality of the venue they engender. Compare, for example, a public library and the Wall Street Journal. Both provide informationŠ .) Secondly, public spheres are "public" in two ways: people can enter the "spaces" without hindrances, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, or economic status, and the spaces themselves are visible; the discussions and decisions do not take place behind closed doors, gated neighborhoods, or private intranets. Thirdly and finally, a public sphere mediates between people and institutions that may be powerless and those that may be extremely powerful. Without this linkage or engagement, conversations would take place in walled off zones and be impotent; the conversations may be full of "sound and fury" but if they're unheard and unheeded, they ultimately signify nothing.


The public sphere is not a binary proposition that either exists or doesn't exist. The uncountable occasions where communication occurs continually shift and assume new shapes; clearly a shade of gray exists between the (unattainable?) extremes of no public sphere and total public sphere. There is no shortage of candidates and partial approximations of forums which inhabit this gray area. Broadcast media, for example, with its putative goal of universal access is one such candidate for being a "public sphere." This candidate loses much of its credibility on inspection, however. Broadcast media, using U.S. television as our example, nearly always is a one-way megaphone that amplifies some voices while silencing many others. A small group of corporations determine to a large degree the form and content (as well as the rules under which they operate) of the messages that the masses will receive (Bagdikian, 1992).

New Internet communication spaces also come to mind as candidates. Yet leaving beside the issue of access--one that we can't actually leave behind: the "digital divide"-- we are still left pondering how the conversations link in any way to changes in either attitude or policy of those in power. In recent years, as an example, the World Bank and other powerful institutions have been convening several cross-sectoral, interdisciplinary "policy networks" (Reinicke, 1999-2000) to discuss issues and directions of some important international problems like access to fresh water. Although these new initiatives may be heading in the right direction, they've been questioned as to their motivation and sincerity; in other words, the efforts may be falling short of the mark in terms of the third important feature of a "public sphere" (discussed above), which connects discussion to decision-making in an authentic way. These conversations may merely be showpieces that are trotted out to demonstrate a "new openness." Alternatively, they may be electronic Petri dishes for inexpensively engendering new ideas that can then be borrowed effortlessly and applied in ways that were not intended by the original proposer.

A Closer Look

As we have mentioned, a public sphere must be inclusive. This means that everybody can participate and, in theory, that those with more money than others should not be able to purchase more influence with their money either directly or indirectly. (I.e. weapon makers shouldn't determine foreign policy; prison guard unions shouldn't develop "three strikes you're out" laws; computer and media conglomerates shouldn't define proper use of public airwaves; and software billionaires shouldn't determine whether or not education is best left to "the market.") This means that society needs to closely examine the ways in which people participate in public decision-making (at community meetings, for example) and help ensure that those ways don't favor the privileged. There must also be ways that citizens can place their concerns on the public agenda. If the public agenda is monopolized and manipulated by corporations, politicians, or the media, the public sphere is seriously degraded. The public sphere also requires a deliberative public process in which all voices are equal--at least at decision points. As part of this process, adequate time must be allotted for hearing and considering multiple points of view; the discussion must occur in the clear light where it can be observed by all and the procedures through which concerns are brought up, discussed, and acted upon must be clear and widely known.

The questions we have been asking so far have been applied only to the developed world. In the developing world, where a "modem costs more than a cow," issues related to a public sphere are characterized by seemingly incommensurable differences from those in the developed world. While approximately half of the world's population has never made a telephone call, US use of the Internet accounts for about half of the world's usage while an additional 25% will be found in (mostly western) Europe. Only 1 in 10,000 in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan has Internet access. Nearly 80% of all web pages are in English while the people of China--approximately 25% of the world's population--can read and understand approximately 0.6% of the web pages. If the idea of a public sphere is to actually take hold, it must embrace and integrate (but not overwhelm) the multitude of voices from the developing, largely non-English, and less technologically developed world. Also, it should be noted, the world's digital fault lines don't show up neatly along national boundaries. The pattern is much more fractal; desperate poverty adjoins posh townhouses in Manhattan while newly minted millionaires in China, Russia, Latin America and elsewhere drive new Mercedes past people living in deprivation.

Towards a New Public Sphere

Thanks to millions of inspirational projects worldwide, we are beginning to get a good idea what types of "public spheres" people need. The projects vary widely as do the ways in which people can get involved. There is apparently room for many different types of involvement, some of which are described in "The Seattle Statement: Moving the Democratic Communication Agenda Forward" in this newsletter. Much of the important work involves raising consciousness. We must stress that it's possible and critical to create a more responsible communication network but that it won't happen without our attention. We must also spend time building new models. This work will demonstrate that better alternatives exist and that we must support them. This includes using the new systems, building new technologies for civic experimentation and making them freely available. It also includes making important civic information and communication services available and supporting those people and institutions that do so. This is not an idle or insignificant activity. See Veran Matic's statement in this newsletter or any issue of Index on Censorship [ ] for examples of journalists who risk their lives and livelihoods for this aim. (Also see my "Reinventing the Media" article for ideas that can help promote more democratic communication systems.)

Since a "public sphere" is abstract and imprecise, its best use may be as an indicator for direction and as a metric for criticism and action. Crossing disciplinary lines by working with policy-makers, activists in other organizations, professional societies, and with people at the grassroots and in marginalized communities all over the world, will prove to be one of the most effective strategies. Whether the idea of an equitable and universal public sphere becomes a reality will depend on how effectively people can organize around this issue. The idea of a public sphere can help us to evaluate the communication systems that currently exist. It an also help us to imagine--and create--better ones. There is nothing in the protocols, wires, or switches that will do this for us! The next step is up to us.


  • Bagdikian, B. (1992). Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Reinicke, W. The Other World Wide Web: Global Public Policy Networks, Foreign Policy, Winter 1999 - 2000.
  • Robins, B. (Ed.) (1992). The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
  • Schuler, D. (1995). "Reinventing the Media" developed as a response to "The Future of Journalism" conference.

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