Eisenstein says that the printing press provided “an impersonal link between people who were unknown to each other” through “the wide distribution of identical bits of information” (1979, p 132). That phenomenon brought into being a public. I believe that this public – who were able to read about ideas, affairs of state, and so on – was a necessary precursor to a Habermasian-style ‘public sphere’. Coexisting with this new public, though, is a trend towards individualism; away from centralised social structures where news was disseminated at sermons and so on. “To read a printed report encourages individuals to draw apart,” (1979,p 132) Eisenstein says.
I read this reading more or less first, and the tension I have just outlined seemed to recur across various technological shifts. The weeks readings left me wondering, though, what the implications would be of the drawing apart caused by the internet would be for the public sphere.
As people increasingly look online for news, the data-streams they’re accessing become increasingly tailored to themselves (through choice of publication, what appears in social media newsfeeds, etc). There has been a massive increase in the amount of choices for “news” and entertainment (indeed, many young people hardly read/watch/listen to the news at all). The “identical bits of information” (Eisenstein, 1979, p.132) that are accessed increasingly focus on identity, idiosyncratic tastes, sub-cultures or demographics and the publics who share in them may be spread across the globe, or hidden in their mum’s basement.
This fragmentation of the public-agenda seems to suggest that people are increasingly “drawing apart” (Eisenstein, 1979, p 132) as the published material accessed becomes more and more specific to them. Surely, though, in a democracy, a healthy public sphere is essential to informed voting and political participation.
As I continued reading Brannon identified this possibility of “isolated perceptions of the universe” (2007, p 362). Brennan hypothesises that the digital revolution “might instead force a model of networked, nonlinear learning that improves on traditional ways of thinking” (2007, p362). Brennan is talking about research, though, and I don’t think the same logic can be applied to the health of the public sphere, because the commonality of the policy agenda and shared concerns and values are essential to its functioning in a practical way within our legal and policy frameworks. That is, the essentially centralised mechanisms which we deploy to run our democratic society are less compatible with the fragmented, dispersed, and decentralised publics which are being created by the web.
I think that the McCormick (2013) reading provides an interesting talking point for how we might package up data (as “multigraphs”) in new ways to inform a “public sphere”. Could short parcels of information (“nanographs”) such as tweets be packaged in a way that promotes a shared news culture to inform public debate?
I have also come across this in a different course, and I think some of the statistics the Pew Research Centre has come up with offer an interesting counter-point to my worries.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) ‘Exerpts’ from ‘Defining the initial shift: some features of print cultur’ in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change Vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 43-163.
Brannon, Barbara A. (2007) ‘The Laser Printer as an Agent of Change’ in Baron, Sabrina et al., (eds.) Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L Eisenstein Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 353-364
McCormick, Tim (2013) ‘From monograph to multigraph: The distributed book’, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/01/17/from-monograph-to-multigraph-the-distributed-book/, accessed August 6 2014.