The Evolution of the Public Sphere
// Posted by Kelsey on 02/17/2012 (2:49 AM)
The public sphere is the community in a society where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action.(Compliments of Wikipedia) This sphere extends back to the beginnings of ancient Greece in 8th century BC, it was called the agora, Greek for ‘gathering place’. The agora was the center of town and is where the culture of the city existed. Displays of arts, athleticism, spiritual activities and politics were all taking place here. However, in the political realm only free-born male land-owners were allowed to participate. As the agora formed into a marketplace rather than a place solely for free men, others were certainly apt to hear the discussions and rulings of the king or council but they could do nothing about it.
The town hall is the place in which the governing of a city takes place. These buildings often house a more formal sphere of elected officials but it is still a gathering place for the community equipped with libraries and space for entertainment. In colonial America this was the center of democracy. Once more, land-owning, white men came together to discuss and ideally solve the political problems of their community.
-Coffee shops and taverns in cities and towns of all time periods have been a place to gather and discuss politics and town issues. Before technology was around this was the only way to gather information outside of one’s personal bubble, if you will. Travelers could be key parts of this by bringing in news from other places.
Even something as cliche as a barbershop has been a source of political information and influence. And for most of history it was the free, rich, white men with the ability to inform himself and others as well as the ability to take action if they saw fit. However, we have seen throughout the 20th century the expansion of the political sphere to include the apparent spheres of all races, religions, and genders. And here we are, with a growing sphere of voices and with it, a new and constantly adapting medium with which to influence politics, the internet.
The internet is the agora of today’s political influences, or influencers I should say. It started with the counterculture movement, we saw the first blog space in the Well, throw in a decade of hacker innovation, and some dorm room ideas that spawn into things like facebook and you get the feedback systems of today that can organize things like the Arab spring, some truly volatile riots, or an occupy wall street movement. It can completely revamp the way political polls are taken, instead of cold calling and letters through good ole’ snail mail, we have access to numerous surveys online that take in the same information in virtually no time at all!
In his book Information Please author Mark Poster argues that this age’s public sphere really isn’t like the public sphere’s of old because of the personalities one creates online in what Poster calls the digital public sphere. “My argument is not that the digital public sphere destabilizes the full presence of face-to-face meetings but that it constructs the subject though the specificity of its medium in a way different from oral or written or broadcast models of self constitution…The digital self that participates in the Internet public spheres is different from the individual speaking in the agora or the coffee shop, as well as from the representative of individuals speaking in democratic institutions like parliaments.”(41)
In essence, Poster is saying that the person we create on the net is different from who we are in reality but, the digital public sphere still has the capability to influence political actions on the part of our representatives. Case and point being the outcry against PIPA and SOPA only weeks ago. Ultimately, the public sphere has been a highly influential space for those who were allowed to participate and eventually for those who chose to participate in it. The digital public sphere allows this generation to take that influence to an entirely new level that I don’t think we fully understand. It is very easy to express our opinions and to share them on a large scale with our friends and with our representatives. How far we take that ability I think will be revealed in the coming presidential election as we weed out the Republican candidates and take stock of how influential the internet is at publicizing where our candidates stand and why we should vote for them.