Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/The Impact of Technology on the Development of the Public Sphere

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Chapter Three: The Impact of Technology in the Public Sphere[edit]

Print technology increasingly plays a central role in the mediation of social networks. Any socially grounded theory of the public sphere will have to take into account these social network structures and the communications systems that bind them.

Habermas discusses how the “public sphere” emerged in bourgeois society in the 18th century. He sees the public sphere as a kind of mediator between society and state, between public and private interests, through which the public can categorize its opinion. Therefore, the public sphere is a forum in which people are “unrestricted” in what they say and are guaranteed freedom of expression in all of its forms. The new public sphere permitted people (for the first time) to shape public opinion. The public could make their private concerns known through several means, but print became extremely imperative. During the periods of the American and French revolutions, Habermas observed that people were fast to gather and grab newspapers as political tools. Upon allocation, the more private publications showed an unbelievably loud voice of the public in response to the state publications. Karl Bucher describes the situation that unfolded as an outcome of the changing press, “Newspapers changed from mere institutions for the publication of news into bearers and leaders of public opinion – weapons of party politics. This transformed the newspaper business. A new element emerged between the gathering and publication of news: the editorial staff. But for the newspaper publisher it meant that he changed from vendor recent news to a dealer in public opinion.”

The state of newspapers described by Bucher seems ideal, because it is a forum that is open to and certainly created by the joint voices of the public. Yet, this state of journalism was brief. “Although the liberal model of the public sphere is still instructive today with respect to the normative claim that information be accessible to the public, it cannot be applied to the actual conditions of an industrially advanced mass democracy organized in the form of the social welfare state.” Habermas continues with, “Because of the diffusion of press and propaganda,” the public sphere lost its voice. Groups of people have had to alter their voice and their stances in order to obtain any voice at all in the media. If their plan doesn’t please the political authorities (which are closely connected to media supervisors), then it’s just not fit to print.

Developmental Milestones in Print Technology and how they relate to the Development of the Public Sphere[edit]

The creation of the Printing Press is observed as the formal beginnings of mass media. Often referred to as the bridging of “The Great Divide,” its creation in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg opened up the possibilities of a public sphere in a way that never before existed. With increasingly fasted creation and distribution of ideas and information, the public not only had an increase in material, but also an incentive to become literate, and the public sphere owes its existence to a literate population.

Jurgen Habermas, leading scholor on the emergence of the public sphere explains that the development of the press allows the public to become more active and critical, to more easily express its acceptance or rejection of policies and laws. This process came about in three main stages:

  • Stage 1- The press first supported the needs of large merchants and traders, protecting their economic interests.
  • Stage 2- Later, the press became responsible for informing the public of policies and laws, and was used by the public authority to communicate with the general population.
  • Stage 3- Finally, the press became a voice that allows the public to communicate its concerns with the state. This development allows for discourse between parties. The initial forms for this communication were (and continue to be) newspapers, gazettes, and pamphlets which resulted in social interaction, connections, the formation of opinions, and reflection.

Following the progression of the above stages, the first newspapers were more closely related to today’s catalogues, than to contemporary newspapers. They were used to advertise products, and simple announcements. The continuing decades would see the emergence of local news, and then national and world news.

The emergence of magazines as a part of the public sphere grew to target several audiences. General audiences were targeted for news regarding entertainment, special interests, news, and shopping. Specialized audiences were reached through journals, serving a particular, targeted audience who shared a specific field of interest, occupation, or political affiliation. In the era of the printing press, before the invention of more advanced media via radio and television, idea were processed in a linear fashion. Of utmost importance was the standardization of the written word. Therefore, uniformity was dictated by the creation of dictionaries, thesauri, and grammar books which popularized standard spelling, punctuation, and abbreviations.

The extent of the written word contributed to its linearity, with a plot and natural progression, and a continuality of ideas.

Among the many developmental milestones in the creation of the developing newspaper and magazine is the decade of the 1930’s, which prided itself on representing life as it really was lived, with faults, and recreation. Also popular of the time was the explosion of “how to” articles, greater informing the public on standard living. This idea continues today as greater variety emerged in the following centuries with the creation of the confessions magazine and a greater focus on sex and politics for entertainment’s sake. A more detailed progression of magazine journalism follows below:

The Impact of Developments in Print Technology on Journalism[edit]

Today, magazines, in their secular context tend to report on current events, trends, issues, and prominent people in society and around the world. However, the progression up to this point is complicated and full of its own trends. After the invention of the printing press, the first newspapers followed in the years 1605-1690. A half century later, the public demand rose, and their prominence in the public sphere has not lost its weight.

The beginning of the 1700’s was paired with an increased interest in the arts, as a higher class grew in America. Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Bradford were the editors and creators of the first prominent magazines in their areas of the country. Although most of the population was occupied with work and could not give their attention to the emerging science, medical, and agricultural magazines being published, their popularity exploded in what is known as the Golden Age of Magazines, when it became profitable to write. 10 cent magazines of the 1890’s emerged, well illustrated, colored, and supported by a rise in advertising. The less educated middle class became a targeted audience, as the idea of self-improvement raged, and national events gave way to Muckraking. McClure’s magazine from 1903-1912 employed writers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffins, among others, and magazines became the national media voice of the time. The magazine became the weapon of political struggle as corruption was reported for the public, and investigative journalism began.

As the Muckrakers completed their purpose, and the American public felt that the issues were addressed politically through Progressivism and the election of Wilson, magazines went back to publishing personal interest stories, fiction, and romance. However, the Muckrickers had set the stage for a continuing tradition of radicalism in the public sphere, and made an easy transition to new forms of journalism. Magazines became the carriers of mass popular culture, although today’s special interest journals have taken on the radical nature of radical journalism, while popular magazines today are the carriers of mass popular culture.

Digital Technologies[edit]

The Impact of digital technology on the public sphere[edit]

We have thus far seen the impact of technology on print media as well as radio and television media. The changes seen in these fields are followed in the realm of digital media, which is used to define a "system is one that uses discrete numbers, especially binary numbers, for input, processing, transmission, storage, or display, rather than a continuous spectrum of values (an analog system) or non-numeric symbols such as letters or icons," according to Wikipedia.com. The prevalence of digital technologies has become greater and greater over time; the origin of this movement lies in the digital revolution of the last half of the 20th century.

Digital Revolution[edit]

The impact of digital technology on the public sphere first became palpable towards the latter half of the 20th century. At the revolutions' center was the rapid drop in costs and improvement in digital devices such as the computer. This facilitated the development of devices that were previously unthinkable, such as the World Wide Web (WWW, or Internet). The WWW now is a central characteristic of the contemporary public sphere. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of the WWW has been the ease with which people can gain access to information. As many writers studied in class would say, the public sphere is built on information and information accessibility.

Digital technologies stemming from the digital revolution have also raised concerns. One such concern is that digital code is very easy to create and very difficult to get rid of. Thus, the potential to pirate information is improved and increased. From a historical perspective, digital technology enables the manipulation of data not possible in previous times (for example, the U.S. Constitution was not written on a Dell laptop in Microsoft Word to be edited, but rather on paper where its effect would be permanent).

The impact of digital technology on journalism[edit]

In specific regard to the impact on journalism that digital technology has had, it is accurate to say that many fields -- journalism not being a exception -- have been affected by the digital revolution. The field of journalism and the duration of the news cycle have been most seriously affected. Digital technology has allowed for instant transmission of news from across the globe. Additionally, the same benefits and concerns expressed over the digital revolution parlay into the journalism field. In a rush to be first to present news or information, important facts and details can be left out, misrepresented, or simply be false.

McLuhan would argue that this allows for a corporatization of the media to the end that news business can be "make-or-break" by being the first to break a particular story. Digital technology provides news media with an avenue to do their jobs better, and this technology is used to make their business more profitable.

However, big news media are not the only entities that profit. Many argue that bloggers and investigative websites stand to benefit the most from digital technology due to resources that the WWW and other digital technologies provide. Bloggers, who lack "journalisitic integrity", deserve mention because they have an impact on the journalism field. The Dan Rather/George Bush incident and TheSmokingGun.com/James Frey revelation reveal the effect that bloggers and investigative websites can have on the public sphere.

Conclusions[edit]

While a basic snapshot of the impact of digital technologies on the public sphere and on journalism in particular, it is clear that the future will hold more of the same as the beginning of the 21st century. Technologies will continue to develop that enable information sharing and access while also exposing questions in the factual basis of what we read. The authors we have read point out these integrity issues and highlight developments in the digital world that have forever changed our concept of the public sphere.