The Socio-Sphere

The digital media revolution has largely made both the private sphere and the public sphere obsolete, or at least questionable, and has created a domain that is neither private nor public, a domain in which traditional forms of association, including politics, are being called into question.  Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) chooses not to use the terminology of modern social theory at all and speaks of the “collective,” a space of networks instead of a public sphere bound on the one side by a radically individualized privacy and on the other by hierarchical and oppressive social structures. Following Latour we propose dropping the categories of private and public and exchanging them for a new term, the socio-sphere. The socio-sphere is neither private nor public, but is based upon the new form of communication made possible by digital media, namely, “many-to-many” communication. The age old limitations on communication forcing it into either a one-to-one mode or into a one-to-many mode created a public sphere that was inherently contradictory. One-to-many communication disguised itself by means of the concept of representation and pretended to be one-to-one communication, that is, a form of communication in which all co-participate equally. The affordances of digital media create an entirely new form of communication capable of overcoming the limitations imposed upon communication since the beginnings of human history. This is what the technology does. The possibility of many-to-many communication brings with it the hope of resolving the contradiction of representation created by traditional media, namely, that one speaks for the many by means of speaking to the many.  In the wake of the digital media revolution the public sphere, and with it, the private subject of modernity, vanish into the socio-sphere. There is no longer anything like privacy and there is no longer a specifically public space.

Communication has become a way of building networks. It can serve as a network norm in that it refers to all practices, techniques, activities, influences, and negotiations that are neither private nor public, but take place in a different domain than either of these traditional social spaces. Regardless of whether we speak of a socio-sphere, a space of networks, or the collective, once the public sphere has been transformed by new media, attempts to communicate in traditional ways result in contradictions and conflicts. Critics of new media often lament the loss of privacy, while simultaneously decrying the vanishing of authoritative, representative one-to-many communication. A typical reaction to the digital revolution has been accusations of exhibitionism on the one side and the dethroning of authorities on the other. Within the egalitarian, non-exclusive, non-hierarchical cloud everybody is exposed, everybody participates, and nobody can control the flow of information. The critics are right to point out that privacy is no longer possible, but they often forget to mention that it no longer serves any social purpose. What good does it do to attempt to hide an email address or a mobile telephone number, when personal and professional advantages depend upon many people knowing this information? What good does a Swiss numbered bank account do, when bank data are automatically transferred internationally? What good is there in refusing to participate in social networks, when most hiring, and even school admissions and finding a spouse are being done via LinkedIn, Xing, Facebook, Google, etc.? What gain is there in turning off GPS tracking, when I miss my bus or can’t find my way through the city? Why does one need to hide, when there is no advantage to it? The privacy that Edward Snowden is fighting for is not that we have no data in the Web, but that we don’t lose control of it.

Digital media allow personal presence and participation in global social movements without the anonymity that centralized mass media require. Individuals must no longer accept anonymity as the price for public communication. Critics are therefore right to lament the loss of authority in the public sphere. They sense that without privacy traditional public communication in the sense of identification with opinion leaders, representatives, political parties, associations, and so on makes no sense. What need does society have of representatives, of pre-selection of topics and information, when everybody can communicate with everybody about anything directly? If everyone can speak out to the world, no one needs to speak for anyone and no one can or need control what is being talked about. Why should one rely on experts, when the solutions coming from the “wisdom of the crowd” (Surowiecki ) are better, cheaper, and faster? Opinion making is no longer the prerogative of experts, authorities, or those who control mass media. No one needs to speak for anyone else, since everyone has access to the means of communication and many-to-many communication, as Clay Shirky, points out has for the first time in human history become possible.

The crisis of representation and the possibility of many-to-many communication as the basis for establishing a socio-sphere in the place of the incompatible and antagonistic domains of the private and the public should not lead to a simplistic and unrealistic hope in direct democracy or participatory politics. These terms have their natural home in the political theory of modernity and serve primarily the purpose of at once uncovering as well as disguising the inherent contradictions of the public sphere by holding out the hope of a solution without overcoming the fundamental concepts of modernity. In this vein, it has often been noted that early hopes in the democratizing effects of the internet have not been fulfilled. Present day controversies over “net neutrality” are a case in point. Nonetheless, these hopes are not unjustified. The digital media revolution has indeed set the stage for reconceptualizing the social as well as the political. Not only has many-to-many communication become possible and the socio-sphere been opened up, but political theory is beginning to envision new forms of representation. The significance of communication as a network norm and as a principle of the social operating system rests not alone upon its function in constructing networks, but also in the kinds of networks that it builds.


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