Regulating the Global Information Society

By Christopher T. Marsden | Go to book overview

2

The role of the public sphere in the information society

Nicholas Garnham

In recent years, a major strand of thinking about the media and its role within the theory and practice of democratic politics has been based upon the concept of the public sphere, particularly as developed in the writings of Habermas, and in the various critiques of Habermas' position by, among others, feminists, communitarians and post-modernists.

I should stress at the outset that I use the term 'media' advisedly, to refer to the channels of social communication between human beings, because I am forced to reject the term 'information society' as devoid of any objective co-relative, and thus void of any analytical, as opposed to ideological, usefulness. Even the most cursory examination of the claims made for the existence or coming into being of an information society reveals this inadequacy. This is not to deny that a combination of technical and socio-economic developments have rearticulated the structure and somewhat modified the conditions of access to and usage of those channels of social communication. But the fundamental questions raised by the relation between those media and democracy, and the role of regulation within that relationship, to which the term 'public sphere' points, have not fundamentally changed.

In order to address the question of the role of the public sphere we need to be clear as to what we mean by the public sphere. And I wish to suggest that although the public sphere is now a fashionable concept and has undoubtedly served a useful purpose in critical thinking about the relationship between economic developments in the information sector and the maintenance or development of democratic politics, as it is now used it often disguises rather than clarifies the issues at stake. In particular I want to argue that the usage of the term 'public sphere' mobilises a range of conflictual views about the nature of the division between the public and the private and about the relative normative evaluations of those two spheres; that contemporary societies and polities are increasingly riven by a shifting range of border disputes between the private and the public and by deep normative confusion about them; that it is around this division and our different normative attitudes to it that many of the regulatory policy disputes revolve. In order to clarify what I think those disputes are really about, what in short is at stake, it will be necessary, I am afraid, to visit areas of

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