Constructing Participants in Online Discourse

“The age of the public sphere as face-to-face talk is clearly over; the question of democracy must henceforth take into account new forms of electronically mediated discourse. [...] For Habermas, the public sphere is a homogeneous space of embodied subjects in symmetrical relations, pursuing consensus through the critique of arguments and the presentation of validity claims. This model, I contend, is systematically denied in the arena of electronic politics. We are advised then to abandon Habermas’ concept of the public sphere in assessing the Internet as a political domain.” (Poster, Cyberdemocracy 265)

Poster examines the current state of the Internet through the eyes of Habermas’ assessment of the public sphere. Any of us can see that the public sphere, wherever it exists, is not engaged with in the same way Habermas explains. Today,  successful coffee house is one that has decent coffee and a stellar internet connection. Any true, extended discourse most often happens online (though the definition of true “discourse” could be debated for days) and not even in real time. Poster explains that most often, technology is seen as a threat to democracy,

“But the fact is that political discourse has long been mediated by electronic machines: the issue now is that the machines enable new forms of decentralized dialogue and create new combinations of human-machine assemblages, new individual and collective “voices,” “specters,” “interactivities” which are the new building blocks of political formations and groupings.” (266)

I would like to take the example of Habermas’ beloved 18th century coffee house and force it into 2011. What is the correlation? If we have determined that the public sphere is no longer conducted face-to-face, then if it exists at all, it must be conducted face-to-screen. To break it down even further, in order to have political participation online in any form, you must have participants (as Poster calls them, “new human-machine assemblages”). One cannot transport themselves to the Internet and then represent themselves in discourse. An identity must be initiated and molded into one that is either an accurate representation of one’s physical self or one that represents one facet in order to be more effective in communicating without consequence (maybe a representation of an idea, a cause, etc.).

If offline discourse has been replaced by online discourse, then the question must be asked whether the online discourse is genuine and not altered or manipulated for political or monetary gain. In Habermas’ ideal space, all participants are equal (within narrowly placed societal ropes) and their opinions are expected to be genuine because it is backed by their real-life identity. Online, this is not always the case. Barack Obama’s twitter account is run by a carefully selected team to send out a crafted message reflecting Obama’s political  agenda. Left and right are people online pushing book deals and cryptic accounts with singular goals. Surely these cannot be included in this “discourse”? I feel that within the bounds of educated users, this sort of falsified, disingenuous discourse is embraced and used as a platform for discussing real issues (Poster’s political discourse). Habermas would likely shudder at the idea (if he were to ever get over the Internet’s existence) because this further excludes participants from meaningful discourse that ideally influences action. If you don’t “get it”, you’re not in the club. How do we know what’s real (with real consequences) and what’s not? Will the web become a play-place, or a place for serious change-inducing political conversation?

“If the term democracy refers to the sovereignty of embodied individuals and the system of determining office-holders by them, a new term will be required to indicate a relation of leaders and followers that is mediated by cyber-space and constituted in relation to the mobile identities found therein.” (269)

This summation by Poster makes me wonder if the last election has gotten the ball rolling on this or if it’s all wrong and headed in a purely superficial direction. I am inclined to believe that this is a very early stage, but still a step in the right direction. Being able to follow the Egyptian revolution online through the eyes of bloggers who were there could have afforded some protection to the people. The world is watching. Or maybe the government wouldn’t have crossed major lines anyway. Recently, the Secretary of Education announced he would be taking student and educator questions about education and policy via the internet after a system of suggestion and voting, of course). Does that spark discourse about education? Will it lead to policy change in a more democratic way? Will it simply increase clicktivism and influence slacker advocates to “act”? Will it (unfortunately, more likely and more immediately) lead to useless propaganda-style “discourse” like that found on Their take on the Secretary of Education:

“Arne Duncan is Obama’s education czar. He follows the policies of Marc Tucker and other communists. His friend is unrepentent terrorist William Ayers [...]“

Welcome to the new frontier. Good luck.