Thinking about public spheres

I am interested in how the digital world, that can dissolve geographical boundaries, can help us keep governments around the world accountable, from the bottom up.

This led me to think about what democracy actually is.

Democracy is meaningful participation

“A pedestrian definition of a democracy is a society in which all eligible members are able to meaningfully participate in public discourses regarding issues and situations that pertain to the society as a whole.” – Nanjala Nyabola (all quotes in this post is from her book)

Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya

Nanjala Nyabola

“Participation must be meaningful in order to influence the political trajectory of the society in question. It’s about the extent to which individuals are able to shape their societies.”

My project, peduncle, is interested in providing data-driven insights, but it nags in my mind what happens to those insights, how people engage with them, and how they relate to action. I believe understanding this better will shape how the project is designed. The insights inform decision on what to act on, and that process, in my mind, is democracy: Insight -> decision -> action.

“This connection between media and democracy is about information generally and communication specifically as the basis for political behaviour. Think of political behaviour as a series of reactions to information.” – Nanjala Nyabola

Liberal, deliberative, and participatory public spheres

I found it interesting that there are different models of how this participation should happen, summarised as “liberal, deliberative, and participatory (or radical pluralist) schools”

Ferree, M.M., Gamson, W.A., Gerhards, J. et al. Four models of the public sphere in modern democracies. Theory and Society 31, 289–324 (2002).

I think I tend towards the pluralist as what “should” happen, here, because I don’t see people being equally represented in a homogeneous goo. I just don’t think it’s possible. But more research required. However, going down this rabbithole I also realised that my project cannot force an ideology from people in order to participate. I think many projects think they are neutral but are most definitely not, and some get downright preachy. To paraphrase Nanjala, nothing is neutral.

“But this technological consensus is fraying based on inequalities and biases built into the system, and also on overarching questions of access. The supposed neutrality of technology can no longer be taken for granted.”

I would need to be clear what ideology I build into my project, but then work even harder to …uh … keep it open? I want to embrace and build curiosity, and for that you need very, very different outlooks who are still happy to participate.

Hierarchies of public spheres

Social cohesion is stratified. Chan and others talk about horizontal and vertical cohesion, and I would add digital as a third category of belonging.

Chan, J., To, H.-P., & Chan, E. (2006). Reconsidering social cohesion: Developing a definition and analytical framework for empirical research. Social Indicators Research, 75(2), 273–302.

Horizontal cohesion is a sense of belonging among your peers in your geographical vicinity, it is about how much you trust your fellow citizens.

A vertical dimension of social cohesion is how you relate to the power structures above you; your elders, your government, authority structures, measured with indicators such as institutional trust and political participation.

Digital cohesion is the communities you belong to on the internet, which in my humble opinion are becoming very, incredibly, shaking-up-the-world-ly important and relevant.

Networked public spheres

This all still sounds neatly compartmentalised, that what happens in one sphere does not impact or challenge the others, which seems unrealistic to me. Linking to the digital cohesion, Yochai Benkler and others call the new digital iteration of the public sphere the networked public sphere.

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press.

Boyd, d. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self. Identity, community, and culture on social network sites. (pp. 39–58). Routledge.

A networked public sphere means layered interconnections and clusters, but influencers are still important.

Nanjala Nyabola writes in her book “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018) that there are many public spheres:

“The late Nigerian scholar Raufu Mustapha expanded this criticism by arguing that there are in fact many public spheres that reflect the social and cultural boundaries – e.g. class, ethnicity, age, gender – that cut across our lives. This resonates with the feminist idea of the personal as political, in that the public sphere cannot be restricted to the formal political realm that is dominated by patriarchal power structures.”

I like the idea of clusters, or a networked public sphere, or an ecology, because it gives different avenues of belonging, of decision-making, of tackling a challenge. You can get blocked in one direction, but then you can try a different avenue, with a different group, with different power dynamics, with a different set of values, a different set of constraints. Digital communities release geographic constraints, for example.


Nanjala mentions that in Kenya there are three main pubic spheres; public, civic and primordial, and that
“The public and primordial spheres roughly correspond with Habermas’ public/private divide (which I think corresponds to the horizontal and vertical cohesion?), but the civic sphere is the hybrid space where an African bourgeois class ‘accepts the principles implicit in colonialism but rejects the foreign class imposing them … competent enough to rule but with no traditional legitimacy”

This “competent enough to rule but with no traditional legitimacy” makes me wonder about capitalism, or neoliberalism or modernity or whatever it is that is hurting ourselves and our environment and seems so overpowering and unavoidable right now. And I wonder if we replace “colonialism” with “capitalism” that we can connect the African experience with the European experience of saying, this modern way is clearly ruling right now, but it is not legitimate, and we can find ways of resisting.

Digital resistance

(if not outright digital democracy)

“[New media] allows Kenyans to present the fullness of their political identities by transcending the boundaries between the private and the public spheres. It is private because everyone is creating and curating their own feed but it is also (Peter Ekeh’s form of) public because this curation is done for a public.”

Following the networked public sphere,
“First, there is a ‘shift from a hub-and-spoke architecture with unidirectional links to the end points in the mass media, to distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes in the networked information environment’.” and then people can potentially “subvert the centre altogether and communicate to each other directly.”

In the way that the sharing economy shook up conventional business-to-consumer services and went directly peer-to-peer, for better and for worse, is it possible to complement the vertical government-to-citizen service delivery and response/protest to a peer-to-peer governance model?

If the sharing economy went from business to consumer to peer-to-peer trade, could a change from governance to citizen be sharing governance?

What would it take to keep that accountable?

OK, that is probably a big question that’s maybe too dreamy, but one thing that I do wish to address with my project, and as Nanjala writes is that “we cannot have a constructive debate if we are not operating with the same set of ‘facts’.”

So let’s start there.

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