Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Habermas, Public Sphere, Gov 2.0, Participatory Culture and Status

I've started reading Jürgen Habermas, in the hope he will show me how to settle the anger and frustration I feel looking out at the world through the eyes of Illich. Illich was somehow able to think like he did without apparently getting eaten up by on the other hand, I'm still learning.

I've so far read some of his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 1962 (English 1989). At the same time I'm referring to a book of essays collected from a conference about Habermas' work, Habermas and the Public Sphere. Edited by Craig Calhorn.
Habermas saw a vibrant public sphere as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed... Today, in contrast, there is scant public debate, few public forums, and political discussion has degenerated from a fact-based rational-critical examination of public matters into a consumer commodity. There is the illusion of a public sphere, according to Habermas. Wikipedia editors June 2010

Chompsky's Manufacturing Consent immediately springs to mind just now, but what I really wanted to note here was the obvious connections this may have to considerations of Gov 2.0 being discussed by bourgeois Australians, and the idea that a new public sphere could be built online, through social media, based on participatory culture.

I think the class of people already in that sphere, discussing social media, connectivity, participation and Gov 2.0, has been up until recently, eclectic and fresh, and not requiring status necessarily (the long tail) - a positive thing according to Habermas. Certainly this absence of status has been the case for discussions about social media up until now, with bloggers over riding journalists, volunteers over riding contracted labor and academics, and individuals bringing politicians and corporations out onto the streets and sometimes into ridicule.

Australian Senator Kate Lundy and her officers have organised speaking events called The Public Sphere, with obvious reference to Habermas' ideals. These events are basically an open mic and wiki - open to seemingly anyone who wants to stand and speak. To a large degree, the design of the events is successful in subverting the barrier of status that limits open dialog and the discovery of innovative ideas in Australian discourse today, but is it really what Habermas describes?

As good as The Public Sphere events are, I think it must go further yet, and be more self conscious of the status and power dynamics implicit in the events. The open mic events are located in Parliament House, The wikis and discussions on the Senator's website, and the banter that goes through the social networks is almost impossible to follow. Habermas acknowledges the decline in the quality of debate when it is spread out from the hands of the elite, but argues that this is a necessary stage to go through, implying that it is possible to grow from it.

I've noticed a sudden change in the type of participation in the discussions about social media, and in particular the Gov 2.0 project. I'm not sure what it is, but perhaps a comparison between 2005 events like Blog Talk Down Under, and 2010 initiatives like Gov 2.0 au and Public Sphere give a faint impression... I want to say the quality of the discussion has degraded, or at least stagnated, but how might I prove such a thing? I can't, its a gut feeling.The opposite might just as well be true if status has any real meaning, because there is a noticeable increase of people with 'status' such as academic, journalist, politician and business people joining the discussion (as others perhaps leave). Recently we're seeing academic papers referencing only the works of other academics, a plethora of johnny-come-lately academic and institution blogs that lack any depth of network or authenticity, and National level conferences hosted and attended by politicians, public servant bosses and big business. To my ears, most of what is said in this new sphere with status, merely parrots what has been said for 7 years, or more if we take it back as far as Cluetrain.. further gets a bit abstract for me.

"Status" seems to be creeping into this new public sphere, and the quality and agenda of the debate is changing.. but into what? Is this the point at which the bosses came and take all the credit? How else could it be?... off to study Habermas some more.


rlubensky said...

I'm not sure Habermas is a useful place to start any more. His penchant for the reasoned argument privileges those who can (especially men) and excludes people who lack critical thinking and articulation skills, yet still deserve a democratic voice. In his later work he shifts to a pro-institutional stance. Recently, he showed that he has little understanding of the net as a site for communicative action.

Leigh Blackall said...

Ah, many thanks Ron.. I was sensing something along these lines too.. Looking around, it seems people are citing Habermas more for feel good points than anything meaningful.. but I'm still looking. I must admit to being uncomfortable with his acceptance of the points you call him out on.. He might be quite opposite to Illich in this regard. If Gov 2.0 can't work out how to use this technology to widen the democratic opportunity, as apposed to simply redistributing it to a new elite, WTF are we going to do!?

ottonomy said...

I see a lot of potential to open up the sphere of public discourse using Internet tools, but at least here in the US, the ideas that percolate up from the "netroots" are outside the bounds of what is considered legitimate. For example, then incoming president Obama used his campaign website to collect public opinions (at least among his supporters) and ideas several times: there was a social moderation tool that allowed people to vote up or down submission. Unfortunately for Obama, many of the most highly rated ideas were out of the realm of the politically legitimate; almost a majority of the top twenty ideas were some variation of marijuana legalization schemes. In a "youtube town hall", this most popular question was dismissed with a laugh, and Obama hasn't offered his forum for this you're if debate since or given the public the chance to moderate their own questions to him again, falling back to the news media class as those who will be allowed to ask his administration questions. This is what your comments on status working itself into the internet public sphere reminded me of.

The public debate outside what is legitimized by the establishment is vibrant in pockets, but it is also very compartmentalized by political belief. Where different points of view come together on comment threads, discussion is trolly and snarky. So to what degree (and how) can outsiders create a powerful public sphere on their own, and to what degree do they depend on institutional power to offer them a seat at the table?

Leigh Blackall said...

Excellent comment Ottonomy. An important reminder of the old status of big media over shadowing all. Disappointing to hear Obama lost that edge.

Perhaps this notion of "public sphere" never did, never will exist the way we are lead to imagine it with Habermas references...

ottonomy said...

I want to believe in a public sphere where facts can be laid out and reasoned debate follows, and I wasn't to believe the internet makes this possible, but over the last couple years it has seemed that distortions spread quickly and persist despite contradiction, like you may have heard about some of the things Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook page about health care reform over here last year. ("death panels"). This year many Democrats are scaling back the town hall-style meetings where they were so inundated with people up in arms about health care reform. The public sphere not only has been poisoned, it had withered a little. I still wasn't to believe in it though and to try to make it possible. One note on the positive, organizing a petition drive is amazingly easy now, and I think that enhances the public-politician discourse.

But an other thing corroding this relationship is the (perceived?) primacy of the donor-politician bond. I have been following Lawrence Lessig's change congress organization, and some of his critiques ring true for me. The election is the most important interface between the public sphere and the political inside, and if it is won by who can pay for the biggest megaphone, the "marketplace of ideas" won't be working to bring the best thoughts to the top. I want to believe it can be repaired though.


ottonomy said...

Whoops, i didn't catch a few mistakes from my phone's predictive text entry thing in there, sorry. I'm still getting the hang of entering lots of text with swype.

Zubair Baloch said...

I dont know anything about Gov 2.0 project and secondly I am not an Australian, I am studying Global Public Sphere and thought of responding you.
Habermas theory revolves around the principle of information, which means 'access' to 'unbiased' facts. Take the aspect of 'access' and think of 'status'. One must have access to Internet to get access to this virtual public sphere. I dont think anywhere in the world 100 percent of the population would have access to Internet. It is just like a couple of centuries ago in many countries only a propertied class had right to vote or say in political & social matters, today having a laptop, blackberry or apple refer to a kind of propertied class so one can not think of universality as Habermas advocated disregarding the 'status'.
Second, 'information', how much do you rely on 'blogs' for getting information or say daily news. Mostly people (Internet users) get daily news from Online versions of the mainstream media. The successful social websites like facebook, youtube, or aol eventually fell into business with joints and they are no more social virtual places immune from the impact of bourgeoisie. Media still plays significant role in shaping public opinion among Internet users.
Despite these I still feel a promise in Internet technologies to revitalize public sphere. This can happen if these technologies become affordable for everyone, blogs get the confidence of the public as source of info, and the element of moderation are minimal. The quality of debate will certainly degenrate but this will really be the voice of the people.

Anonymous said...

hi leigh

i don't think that this is something that can be "top-down". i share your gut feeling about the dilution, and my conclusion is that bureaucracies become inevitable in any stable system.

kate lundy might have great intentions, gov2.0 might be a great idea on a drawing board, but whatever you call it, it's still something "they" are creating for "us", which in my view undermines its own purpose.

about 10 minutes ago i came across a quote from plato saying "the price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men". most of our affairs are managed centrally and we all participate in the fiction that we need only tick a box every 4 years to play our part in maintaining a civil society. or buying a coloured piece of rubber round our wrist that says "save the whales" or "no more bullying".

indifference is one problem, widespread ignorance/undereducation another (look at how much "trivia" regurgitation type cultural product have replaced any real knowledge or insight based stuff) of and also the shift to people seeing themselves in an "economy" rather than a society with obligations on everyone to participate and cocreate.

if you look at human history it's mostly when people are neck deep in some serious shit before they actually show their collective brilliance. so it'll come, i suppose, but not as a result of a canberra-led freedom train...

or something like that


Anonymous said...

PS i also notice that many journalists, who were largely VERY late to it (if they've come to the internet at all), are now at the front of the line, espousing views on journalism in a digital age, being quoted by each other and RT'd (eg in Twitter). it's like they cannot imagine that while they were off doing whatever they've been doing for the last 10 years, others have become fluent in these tools and cultures and equally capable of creating, influencing future directions, theorising on implications etc. however the journalists only hear each other, only believe what another journalist has said, only seem capable of imagining digital replicas of what they already have mastered. it's quite astonishing.

maybe we all do it and it's only obvious outside your own domain of expertise or something.

ok - that's all from me for today... :-)


Pia Waugh said...

Hi Leigh,

Wow, great post! Very insightful and I'll definitely be giving your points a lot of thought.

What we did with the Public Sphere events (in Senator Lundy's office) was always meant to be a starting point, an experiment. We've run three, one in Parliament House, one at ANU and one in Wollongong with simultaneous remote nodes in Brisbane and Melbourne, and with each consultation we've tried to push the model a little more to see what works and what doesn't. With each one we worked hard to engage with interested and relevant communities from the design phase of the consultation, and the efforts and enthusiasm of volunteers with each Public Sphere was a tremendous help in achieving such fruitful and constructive outcomes.

The idea was and remains to create a living example that demonstrates the immense value of engaging publicly, particularly through the discussion channels that people use every day, and make it easy for people to also peer review contributed ideas and input.

By applying the lessons of the FOSS community, which has in many cases perfected online engagement and constructive distributed community-run projects, we have found a few things that really help in constructive public engagement. For instance, rigorous community development, meaningful and outcomes-focused goals, setting a constructive and respectful tone, meritocracy through transparency and peer review, and the lowest possible barriers to participation. We've run across a few challenges, such as how to analyse data versus relationships (eg, how to assess if 80% of reaction to X was negative, but 75% of those people work for the same company), and we are playing with ways to help in the analysis of data and relationships. We have to create checks and balances to make sure public consultations are contextualised and (hopefully) difficult to game. Personally I think the combination of transparency, peer review and relationship analysis will help this enormously.

I see future government consultations, regardless of the topic to be largely reliant on the community development around each individual consultation. For instance, a consultation outside the tech arena may use different tools, different methods, different community/industry groups to engage, but only by engaging with the community in the design phase you can determine the best way to run a specific consultation in the most constructive way for that community. Our model is not static, but ever shifting depending on who and what you are engaging with and about.

We're planning the next one to be a few months away, and hope to take the model to another level exploring public engagement in the policy implementation phase, or perhaps actual policy drafting. We'd love to see the Public Sphere model evolve to actual co-design of policy, and indeed of government, but we need to walk before we can run :)

These are all huge and very exciting steps for government, and we cannot underestimate the effort such change will take. Well considered feedback and ideas like yours is vital in helping shape the way government can do things better, and ironically proves again the value of public contributions. Thank you! :) Catch you around.

Pia Waugh
ICT Policy Advisor & Geek
Office of Senator Kate Lundy

Pia Waugh said...

Just one last thing, I understand some of the other commenters concerns about "top down", and I do think that a major element to Gov 2.0 if it is to be successful will be in government collaborating with others, not just trying to do everything itself.

On the other hand, there is a lot of stuff gov does as part of its "business as usual" where incorporating these consultative and participatory practices would be enormously helpful, but you can't avoid working from a central point. For instance, citizens can report potholes, but probably don't want to roll up their sleeves to get into street repair themselves :)

Government will always provide important services to citizens, and it is in the design and implementation of policy where consultation can have a really useful impact in making policies relevant and the implementation practical and useful to people.

Cheers again,

Jacinta said...

When I read your article, I got an implication that those who were ‘status’ people were somehow not authentic advocates of the principles behind Gov 2.0. If I read the implication right, I question its validity. Why does someone have to come to this topic with ‘pure intentions’? I think the topic is broad enough to cope with those who are publicising / promoting themselves along with the topic. To my way of thinking, in order to do this, they must follow the principles of Gov 2.0 (open, transparent and collaborative) in order to gain status.
Which brings me to the second point: The Government 2.0 taskforce noted the cultural barriers to creating a more collaborative, engaged set of public servants. Cultural change comes from (in part) leadership action. Not leadership speech, but action.
So if academics, journos and executives are talking about this, pointing out where it’s been done well and done poorly, positing ways to do it better, how can that do anything but help the cultural change gain momentum?

Leigh Blackall said...

@ Zubair, many thanks for stopping in and lending us your perspective. I think your connection between today's issues of access and previous era issues of class is important to consider. Its only with the benefit of hindsight that we clearly see the things that lead to historical problems. Today, here and now, we can't easily anticipate such consequences, which is why on large projects with big implications we should preserve existing feedback systems, with flexibility in what we're doing to change or escape a course of action if we need to.

Similarly, information is so easily changed and manipulated by our new propertied class. We see it daily in our mainstream and mega media outlets, we can even track its influence through the social media, and its new face on projects like Wikipedia. As you say, our new and hopeful channels are not immune to this influence, and my concern is exactly that, our discussions (perhaps now dominated by said class) seems to be ignoring this known.

Leigh Blackall said...

@roseg, I recall many Australian journos poo pooing the impact and importance of social media right up until last year. Do we hold journos to account like we do politicians? Their slackness in reporting something with insight and depth these past 7 years has in part left us with the problem you describe today. I'm left wondering if Australia is really even ready for Gov 2.0? We have such a gab between the informed and the ignorant in Australia (perhaps another legacy of Howard economics?), that hope of the participatory requirement of Gov2.0 proposals will be left wanting, leaving a pretty large opportunity for a minority to push through new agendas with little real consultation to show for it...

Leigh Blackall said...

@Pia, many thanks for the encouragement, clarifications and corrections. I'm glad that you personally sense something similar to what I'm sensing, and the as yet ill defined problems we may be yet to face as a result. As a thought exercise, I like to imagine what the NBN and Gov 2.0 initiatives would be like if they were being implemented in say, Finland or Brazil.. or in another time, like 1860s, 1920's or 1970s. I note those years or those countries, because I perceive them to be inspired and directed by more social principles, with more engaged citizenry - and that that is different to our Australia 2010 - close on the heals of Howard 1996-2007 - with our rhetoric of "industry engagement", "deregulated market competition", and "user pay" economics.. etc. How might our "public sphere" of discussions, celebrities and people with status be different? What would the line up of key notes at conferences look like? Who would feel confident to take the mic at Public Sphere events? And how would that affect the directions towards action?

Leigh Blackall said...

@Jacinta, no implication to detect, its right there in my post (and comments).. I do have a growing sense that the people with status and celebrity lack some authenticity. Increasingly the events I attend involve panels made up of pretty powerful people - which isn't the reason I would be so skeptical, but the things they say are risk averse and generally uninteresting in terms of what they link and connect to, and how open they really are to doubt and discussion. It feels like the bosses suddenly caught the evangelism bug, and to hell with the evidence and critical thinking we might otherwise expect from such a class of people.

The Gov2.0 task force was completed in incredibly short time, credit is given to Nick Gruen for that speed. Nick now appears to be the main spokesperson for Gov2.0 - a word with direct and seemingly un-self-conscious reference to the US project, taking up ideas and concepts largely developed in that context.. I don't really take issue with the content, but the process and possible consequences are a *little* worrying. Especially if academics, journos, executives, and celebrities start pointing uncritically to iPads, Twitter and Facebook (for example), and influencing the quality of our discourse about social media, participatory culture, and what the principles for that might be... these status groups have a disproportionate level of influence over a field of knowledge that has been developing collectively, if relatively slowly in Australia..

There's so much more I feel I'd like to say on this, and thanks everyone for the interest and encouragement.. I'll see if I can make my thoughts more concrete, and post again. I hope you're still around then - your contributions are very helpful to me. Thanks

Leigh Blackall said...

Walls come tumbling down | acidlabs
By Stephen Collins
"Leigh Blackall has published an interesting post on the increasing elite participation in discussion around the subject matter of Government 2.0 in Australia. He sees a noticeable spike in “politicians, public servant bosses and big ..."
acidlabs -

Jon Awbrey said...

My favorite Habermas will probably always be Knowledge and Human Interests.

Richard J. Bernstein is extremely helpful in this area, the papers by Habermas and others collected in his Habermas and Modernity especially come to mind.

Nancy Fraser's Unruly Practices affords a series of very searching reflections from another perspective.

Hope you are having a great summa!

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for these leads Jon. I'm off to the library today to see what they have of it.

Moulton said...

Habermas saw a vibrant public sphere as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed.

It's pretty clear that the sober and scholarly advice of Habermas went unheeded. Today Jon Stewart (among many others) routinely lampoon public figures for their excesses. Half a century ago, political comedy took a back seat to Civil Disobedience, in the style of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I'd like to see a blend of all three techniques -- scholarly analysis plus comic satire plus civil disobedience. And I think we need to introduce students to all three tools and illustrate how and when to use them.