Thursday, January 8, 2009

PL 4/09: Libraries and the public sphere

Filed under: blogging, debate — plinius @ 12:02 pm

gazaPrinted mass media are in crisis.

Women in Gaza learn digital film editing.

Reporting, analysis and discussion are moving to the web. In Norway as in the U.S., sales and revenues are falling, year by year. The dailies will not disappear overnight, but their future looks dark.

A new public space

The shift to the web is changing the public sphere. Blogs, news sites and virtual communities represent a new public space for debating social, cultural and political issues. One of the foundations of modern democracy is in the middle of a slow earthquake.

Since librarians see themselves as pillars of democracy and guardians of debate, this change touches the library sector deeply .

Trivial matters?

In late December, a Norwegian librarian criticised blogs and blogger for trivializing public debate. The article by Aud Gjersdal was published in Bergens Tidende – a major regional newspaper – and I quote the opening paragraphs  [my translation from the web version]:

Internet is a technology that in many ways supports the development of a democratic society. It provides access to information, and it provides opportunities for individuals to express their opinions. At the same time, one may ask what kinds of expression emerge as the winner.

In this text-based public space, it is easy to get the floor. We may write freely, protected by anonymity. You do not need a professional background to participate in the debate. It is not necessary to understand the subject, either. You do not even have to think before you intervene.

We see emotional outbursts, personal attacks, and intimate detaiols that would never have been published by newspapers and other print-based publishers. In addition, the network is  filled with commercial texts….

This can cause the decay of serious public conversation. Our attention may be drawn away from our common affairs. We risk losing ourselves in detaiils without significance, so that  democracy as such is weakened.

Heated debate

The article led to a long and heated debate, both on and beyond the original web site. The bloggers felt that she knew far too little about the blogging community – and I agree. The “best of the blogs” represent an important new channel for  discussion, analysis and factual reports – as we may see from Lisa Goldman’s list of Gaza-related blogs (below).

Goldman has only included anti-war blogs – presumably because the other point of view is well covered by Israeli mass media. Even so, blogs like Life Goes on in Gaza and Sderot also tell how it is to live as a target of Hamas rockets.

Plinius shares (for the record) the political conclusions of Lisa Goldman. But my concern in this post is not the political choices, but the possibility of enlightened public debate about crucial issues. By that I mean serious, reasoned, open and questioning public discussion in the sense of Habermas – and of the early European Enlightenment. Gaza is one such issue. The future of democratic debate is another.

Habermas 2.0

The best-known book by Habermas is  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. His focus was the Enlightenment of the late 18th and early 19th century – and its later transformations in highly developed Western societies.

The coming of the web is changing the nature of the public sphere. I am sure we will be discussing what is happening – and what we should do – for many years to come. The old order changeth – and New York Times may be doomed. But IFLA plans a new web site on 2.0 princuiples.

Every evening I listen to a Norwegian journalist reporting from the Israeli side of the Gaza border. The most vibrant democracy in the Middle East prefers to keep journalists out. They might report something unfavorable. But the bloggers keep blogging …

Bloggers opposed to the war who write in English
(from Lisa Goldman)



1 Comment »

  1. […] 4/09. Libraries and the public sphere.  New spaces for public […]

    Pingback by P 56/11: Å lese Habermas « Plinius — Friday, April 8, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

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