New book: The Internet Soapbox. Perspectives on a changing public sphere

 Free Open Access publication at Universitetsforlaget

The book, published in august 2016, confronts predominating political theory with actual changes followed by the web and social media facing the public sphere. It seeks to clarify to what extent political theory takes account of such changes, and vice versa, the book examines in what ways contemporary Internet development continues to carry further the values of openness and argument. The general idea is to mobilise political ideas that directly and indirectly address the nature and functions of our current amorphous and complex public sphere, with an emphasis on the implications of the Internet, including the web and social media. I argue that the predominant normative concept of ‘the public sphere’ is unsuited to help us understand contemporary opinion-formation and legitimacy.

In this book, I do not enter the broader debate on the role of web and social media in everyday life and identity building. This was the topic for another book, Personal Media and Everyday Life (2014) Nor do I delve much into specifics of the various social media and platforms, and in how they differ in mediating political debate. Rather, the Internet is more generally addressed as a set of platforms for political communication, or simply as a political infrastructure. In two stages, this infrastructure is targeted by market and state power: On the one hand, the historical neutrality of the Internet accommodates the strongest corporate players in the market of Internet-based social interaction, due to the absence of marked regulation. The background for this lies partly in the notion of the Internet as a ‘Cyber- space’ where information wants to be free, partly in American entrepreneurial liberalism. On the other hand, after the era of the ‘electronic frontier’, the Internet is currently subject to state-driven interventions. Particularly protection of copyright, extensive surveillance and the struggle against cyber-crime motivate this interest in intervening in the Internet, which affects its function as political infra- structure in democratic societies.

How are we to understand the condition for political discourse in the age of communication titans, NSA surveillance and copyright policing? Does political theory account sufficiently for the nature of the Internet-based political discursive space we call the public sphere? Or does dominating political theory tend to divert our attention by producing unrealistic expectations? How can the public sphere in general, and its digital dimension in particular, be addressed less normatively and more realistically? These are questions I address in this book.

In the book I discuss some aspects of positions that hold public reason to be not only a possibility, but the pivotal medium for and outcome of, public discourse. Discussion itself, the deliberation-approach argues, tends to render the ultimate decision legitimate in the eyes of the participants. This subsequently reproduces solidarity and improves the implementation of the actual and coming decisions. When every- one’s views are open for discussion, it is argued, people would be more inclined to support decisions simply because they, or someone who speaks their opinions, feel that they have been involved.

Contestation- and conflict-oriented positions, on the other hand, argue that public discourses are battles for recognition and interests, battles with words: The point is to gain hegemony, to win or at least not lose without a fight. Contrary to a deliberative approach, conflict and contestation-inclined scholars argue that the longer and more involved in a discussion conflicts are, the more moralised and therefore deeper they become. Rather than becoming hostages to the debate and its outcome, divides may develop and conflicts escalate. Psycho-sociological mechanisms of rationalisation would tend to tie the individual to one of the parties of the conflict.

Having addressed some central points in normative perspectives on public reason and contestation, I discuss how the Internet takes part in structurally trans- forming the public sphere. I then draw on sociological and non-idealist insights in order to encircle a more realist view. I draw on such unlikely bedfellows as sociological systems theory (Niklas Luhmann) and political realism (Bernard Williams, Raymond Geuss and others). The purpose is not to construct a realist theory of the Internet-based public sphere, but rather to point out insights on which such a theory can build.

I should add here that I have reservations about the concept of Öffentlichkeit, particularly with its translations, such as ‘public sphere’ or ‘espace publique’. My impression is that such terms tend to institutionalise public debate to the degree that one ends up assuming such a normative space as a bottom-up pillar for democracy. They may cause unnecessary complications for an undogmatic theoretisation on the relationship between political communication and political gov- ernment. It seems to have become a favorite term for those who want to ‘solve’ problems of democracy. And yet the term is already inscribed with meaning and is at the center for all such debates to the degree that I have decided to stick with it here. My reservations concerning its normativity should become clear all the same.

Published as Open access publication by Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 2016.