Jurgen Habermas a pre-eminent social and political theorist whose ideas around the “Public Sphere” have influenced much of the contemporary thinking around the information or network society. Habermas describes the public sphere as a shared public conversation which encapsulates political, social and cultural debate. He argues that this public sphere is essential to the functioning of a society as it provides the guidance and identity needed in order for a society to function. It is an informal instrument of debate but supports the political process. To some extent the public sphere is an ideology in that belief in its importance is one of the conditions for its existence and Habermas does describe it as such – as well as his passionate belief in its importance. However it can also be considered to as an idea in isolation which describes the social interactions which transcend social interactions but are not yet formally political.
Access to information is one of the cornerstones of the public sphere and it is for this fact that it can be linked to information or network society thinking as the pervasive nature of information in a network society should mean that the public sphere will be able to thrive online – and in many ways it does.
Habermas and others voice their concern about the health of the public sphere with direct reference to current trends in mass media towards a simplification of ideas and a drive towards the use of mass communication techniques for advertising rather than debate concern anyone who has a belief in the importance of a vibrant public sphere as an essential element in a functioning democracy.
In my research I am arguing that the public sphere is an essential part of democracy and that the Internet is an important location for these debates. I will also argue that one of the reasons that it is threatened is because of the increasingly fractionated nature of the Internet and the growth of self-publishing and social networking tools which do not make it possible to connect the elements of debate which could constitute a public sphere. The CitizenScape research is looking at whether the development of technical and socially co-created online spaces can rejuvinate this public sphere and enable it to support the formal decision making process.