Mass Media, Representation, and Network Society

The public sphere of modern bourgeois society is supposed to be the domain in which everyone can speak freely to everyone in order to reach consensus on matters of concern and on that basis coordinate cooperative action. The problem with this concept is that the spatial and temporal conditions of face-to-face interaction make it impossible for everybody to speak to everybody. Within the parameters of modernity this contradiction could not be resolved. The media, at first print media in the form of leaflets, newsletters, and newspapers, and then electronic broadcast media came to be the forms of communication structuring the public sphere. When private individuals came together to form a public, they lost their privacy and individuality and were transformed into anonymous masses. The defining characteristic of mass media is “that no interaction among those co-present can take place” (Luhmann). The private individuals of the public became the masses of the silent majority, who had restricted access to information and could therefore be manipulated by those in control of the media. Cooperative action was in reality not the outcome of one-to-one deliberation, but of one-to-many, hierarchical communication. No modern politician, businessperson, or scientist denies the power of the media, and no one who does not use the media effectively will gain and maintain political power, successfully market their products, or even get research grants. Modernity attempted to solve this problem by means of the concept of representation. Representation explains how democracy is possible under the conditions of the dichotomy between interaction and organization. Democratic process and the counting of votes became the mechanism of transforming one-to-one into one-to-many. Under the regime of the hierarchical one-to-many communciation, however, representatives could only speak for the people in the mode of speaking to the people.

Coupled with the idea of political representation, the mass media created a public sphere in which the representative spoke to the many, but with the claim to speak for the many. Political representation is a concept that only makes sense within a public sphere that pretends to be based on interaction of supposedly private individuals, but is in fact a media-based one-to-many communication in which representation takes the form of speaking to in the guise of speaking for. On the basis of the concept of representation and the reality of mass media, the public sphere turned out not to be a commons of private individuals, but much rather to be a placeholder for the masses and the silent majority. Communication became either a purely private matter or a matter of media representation, whose inherent contradictions laid the ground for eliminating it altogether by integrating communicative action into the functionalism of cybernetic machines. The algorithm doesn’t represent anyone. It doesn’t communicate in any mode. It operates. In situations characterized by over-complexity it is dangerous and irresponsible to communicate, it is much more efficient to operate. The tendency of present day society to react to the problems of complexity by transforming social processes into cybernetic systems can be said to arise from the inadequacies of traditional modes of communication. Modernity is based upon a public sphere defined by the task of somehow mediating between the one and the many, without having an appropriate form of communication to achieve this goal. The impossibility of turning the one into the many and the many into the one generates forms of complexity that push society more and more into that which Habermas termed a “colonization of the life-world” and Luhmann clearly modeled as the reduction of complexity through the emergence of self-organizing complex systems. The “society” whose “self-observation” (Luhmann) occurs via mass media is no one in particular, an anonymous mass. If we wish to avoid this consequence we must revise traditional assumptions about privacy, as well as the public sphere, and relocate the question of how large groups coordinate their activities onto the terrain of networking and new media.

The dichotomy between one-to-one and one-to-many communication has emerged in modernity as the dichotomy between a private sphere and a public sphere. Modern subjectivity is schizophrenically divided into these two domains. The modern subject consists of a personal self on the one side, absolutely autonomous and beyond the reach of any social, cultural, and national conditions, and on the other side there is a social self, who in order to legitimate the sovereignty claims of democratic citizenship had bridge the gap between the one and the many by means of reason. Rationality took on the task of making the barbarous egos of Hobbes’ “state of nature” capable and obliged to communicate with each other and enter into the public sphere in such a way as to consensually form public opinion and thus legitimate government policy and also to participate in hierarchical organizations of all kinds. The public sphere therefore not only depends upon the specifically modern concept of reason, but just as much upon some form of technology that carries the individual voice beyond the immediate spatial and temporal limitations of the face-to-face encounter. Within the parameters of traditional print media and electronic mass media, the public space was structured in such a way that representation instrumentalized the masses into the intermediary of a silent majority. Since the masses were silent, it was necessary to speak for them by speaking to them. But since they were the majority, they had to accept what was said to them as their own will and therefore do what they were told to do. This situation, at least in principle, changes radically with the advent of digital media.  The digital media revolution creates a “socio-sphere in the place of both traditional privacy and the mass media public. On the basis of digital media many-to-many communication becomes possible for the first time in history. The gap between the mico individual and the macro public is filled with connectivity, uncontrolled flows of information, open, non-hierarchical communication that builds networks regardless of the limitations of social identities. Social and political theory should perhaps drop the concepts and habits of thought typical of modernity and reconceptualize the global network society on its own basis.


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