Thinking about the Digital Public Sphere

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This essay is based on a talk given at the first meeting of the Shared Digital European Public Space group, which took place online on 9 July 2021. It is published in Building a European Digital Public Space: Strategies for taking back control from Big Tech platforms, edited by Alexander Baratsits.

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It is published under CC-BY-ND 4.0 DE


This paper questions: how public democratic discourse can be established in an increasingly digitized world; how European values such as openness, transparency, data sovereignty and collaboration, as well as fundamental rights, diversity, pluralism, quality and freedom of expression, can be represented online; which policies would be necessary to build an independent European infrastructure; and how the digital public sphere can be subjected to democratic control.

The Public Sphere

The idea of a public sphere was first clearly formulated by Jurgen Habermas in his 1962 book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft)”, translated into English in 1989 (Habermas 1962; Habermas 1989). The public sphere is best understood as a zone of engagement for members of a society where discussion and debate can take place, where the shape of the society is determined, and where political actions may be initiated or regulated. Now that the network has emerged as the defining characteristic of this latest stage of extractive capitalism, it seems reasonable that the framing of the public sphere should extend to cover the new affordances of digital technologies.

Just as we talk about digital markets and their characteristics in places like the Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al. 2009), so too can we ask how having access to the connectivity and tools available online affect society, and try to understand the digital public sphere. Extensive research – or rather a quick online search – reveals that the term itself is not new: the first reference Google Scholar can find is in 1994, in Gunnar Liestøl’s essay “Hypermedia Communication and Academic Discourse: Some speculations on a future genre published” in “The Computer As Medium” (Andersen et al. 1993).

1994 feels about right. At the time I was working for the UK’s first commercial ISP, PIPEX, as the network was becoming a place for social action. In May 1994 I ran one of the first web-based online events at the launch of the book “Imagologies”, examining the impact of the network on teaching practices. And in September that year I ran the FringeWeb, part of the Edinburgh Fringe, putting material from The Guardian newspaper online (The Guardian 2017) and hosted a cybercafe in Edinburgh where people could post digital photos and reviews (Wilkie 2009; The Guardian 2019). The following year I joined The Guardian as Head of the New Media Lab and we launched the newspaper’s website.

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