Understanding the Public Sphere in a Network Society

--Guest post by Faizullah Jan, American University doctoral student.

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"We are the 99%," proclaim the protesters participating in the Occupy Wall Street marches and sit-ins.  Without a specific policy goal or agenda, the movement's continued growth and visibility is an example of grassroots action focused almost exclusively on public expression, the communication of opinions and preferences that focus on Wall Street but that have global implications and linkages. 

The ideal that public expression should influence government and societal decisions can be traced to the ancient Greek agora, a place where male citizens would gather, exchange and discuss opinions, just like in a marketplace where people trade merchandize.  It was in the agora that public opinion would form and be expressed, influencing the decisions of city state leaders.  The deliberation that took place in the Agora enabled the exclusively male citizens to become direct participants in governance.

In its contemporary form the agora has shifted from a physical space to a communication network; from local deliberation to global conversation. Now it is called the public sphere, or precisely, the “global public sphere” with the mass media as its chief institution.

German sociologist Jürgen Habermas was the first to articulate the concept of the public sphere, defined as the process by which citizens, civil society and the state communicate with each other, “especially on issues of political concern” (Dahlgren 2002). Public opinion emerges in this public sphere, which lies between the state and society, to influence and shape policies of the state. It is an arena which is synonymous to the notion of the marketplace of ideas, and where the strength of the argument, not the status of the speaker is what counts..

According to Habermans, the Public sphere is an abiding part of a democratic polity, which provides oxygen to the system for its functioning and growth. The structure and mode of operation of the public sphere defines the structure of a polity. “How the public sphere is constituted and how it operates largely defines the structure and dynamics of any given polity,” writes theorist Manuel Castells (2008)..

Without a functioning public sphere the state’s interaction with the public is reduced to the relatively brief periods surrounding elections.  Though election participation is a a hallmark of representative democracy, without a functioning public sphere, the government, corporations, and interest groups remain unaccountable to the people.

Yet, according to Habermas and other theorists, the growth of capitalism has encroached on the public sphere by fragmenting the public and reducing them to mere spectators to political decisions. Using the corporate mass media as a tool, the government and corporatations control and frame the the debates that takes place in the public sphere, blocking communication between the state and the public.

In the absence of this communication link, as Manuel Castells (2008) argues, the state loses its legitimacy and the trust of the public, especially in dealing with issues of global concern such as the environment, poverty, terrorism, and other trans-national issues.

According to Castells, non-state actors such as environmental groups and other trans-national organizations constitute a public civil society in the international arena, which functions in a global public sphere. This global public sphere is beyond the influence of any sovereign power because politics migrates from the local/national to the international or global arena.  Nongovernmental actors become the advocates of the needs, interests, and values of people at large, which undermine the role of governments.  .

Castells identifies four trends of global civil society.  These include the rise of grassroots organizations and community groups; non-governmental organizations with a global frame of reference; social movements that aim to control the process of globalization; and global public opinion. These entities and forces organize and mobilize citizens within countries while calling for solidarity in the world at large.

This global civil society exists independently from political institutions and from the mass media, striving for global governance without a global government.  This global public sphere is dependent on the global/local communication media system connected by way of new communication technologies such as YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and the blogosphere..  

Theories of the public sphere and its increasingly globally networked nature are valuable conceptual tools, yet they are also the subject of several criticisms.  As Greg Goldberg summarizes, critics contend that the ideals of a public sphere have never truly existed since social groups have often been excluded, their contributions minimized, or that the processes related to the public sphere have rarely been successful at institutionalizing the public will.

--Guest post by Faizullah Jan, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.


Castells, M. (2008). The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 616(1): 79-93. [PDF]

ComGap (n.d.). The public sphere. Washington, D.C.: World Bank [PDF]

Dahlgren, P. (2002). The public sphere as historical narrative.  In D. McQuail (Ed), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Dahlgren, P. (2002). The public sphere as historical narrative.  In D. McQuail (Ed), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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