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Public Life, John Dewey, and Media Technology

Hans Lenk and Ulrich Arnswald use John Dewey’s distinction between public and private life to consider some implications of information technology.

The first philosophical conception of the public, and of public life in contrast to private life, came into being in the first community of free citizens, democratic ancient Athens. Plato’s works the Republic, Statesman and Laws focused on the criteria for and differences between ‘private’ and ‘public’. Later, in Rome, Cicero took up the concept of the res publica (‘public matters’) from his translation of Plato’s Republic to highlight the congruence between consciously-enacted decision-making according to one’s own will and the laws of a city state. Cicero tried to emphasize not only the familial aspects of human beings (think of the pater familias), but also the public aspects. In a way, he is the first propagator of what can be called homo publicus (‘public man’), whom he sketched out following Plato’s idea of the free-born citizen as expressed in the Republic.

Athenian demokratia cannot simply be equated with modern democracy. At no stage did the Athenians develop institutions similar to those we would today take for granted as democratic; neither did democratic rights extend to all inhabitants: it was not a truly grassroots democracy. Women, the poor, young people, slaves, and foreigners were not included in the political decision-making process. However, for those inhabitants in possession of political rights as free citizens, this early form of democracy allowed an active form of citizenship, and therefore constituted an early public sphere. Today the emphasis in respect to democracy is mainly on the term ‘freedom’, whereas in Athenian times the rather implicit emphasis was much more on the functional idea of ‘equality’ (although only for the free citizens), in the special senses of isonomia (equality of political rights), isegoria (an equal right to speech), and iskratia (an equal entitlement to vote).

House of Commons
The Lobby of the House of Commons, by Liborio Prosperi, 1886

A Post-Democratic Public?

Astonishingly, this emphasis on the democratic functional equality of citizens is mirrored in recent publications on modern democracy, most famously in the groundbreaking book by of political sociologist Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (2004). Crouch’s major concern is the power of multinational companies, and of pressure and lobby groups, who put their economic interests higher than public welfare and the state’s interests. Businessmen have easy access to politicians and are often deep in the heart of policy-making, whereas the influence of the public is becoming ever more diminished. According to Crouch, the trend towards a society in which the power of all the institutions of democracy are minimized means the institutions would become largely formal shells, and the real decisions will be made outside of democratic institutions and processes. Crouch surmises our situation as being in transition towards such a ‘post-democratic’ society. Major decisions are as a rule not any longer being made in the democratic arena, but in the small circles of a self-selecting elite of decision-makers, whose members come mainly from a privileged politico-economic caste and are no longer legitimatized through free elections.

This debate again considers – it was already being considered in ancient Athens – the necessary social conditions for a working democracy of equal citizens. This contemporary concern is therefore surprisingly close to the concerns of classical Athenian democracy. The question of how to safeguard demokratia, with its deliberative processes firmly in the public sphere, as well as how to maintain a healthy public political culture, were already urgent questions back then.

This debate also leads us back to our general question in respect of the public: what are the criteria defining ‘public man’; or, rather, for marking out public functions and perspectives on actions as distinct from private behavior and actions? Indeed, what the real difference is between the private and public spheres of life seems to be a long debate whose outcome depends on some deep-rooted philosophical assumptions regarding not only our methodology, but also the conceptual foundations of social, public, and individual life.

Recent Ideas About The Public

In Germany, back in 1962, Jürgen Habermas published his first major work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. This ‘habilitation’ thesis is now considered to be a notable cornerstone for the development of media studies concerning ‘the public’. Habermas tried to understand the working conditions necessary for democracy. For Habermas, ‘the public’ is the Greek agora [marketplace] – the ancient assembly square where private individuals met government figures, and where the people could have critical debates about public affairs. He concluded that a vibrant public is the best guarantee in a democracy for keeping the authorities within boundaries.

Habermas also rightly insisted that modern democratic welfare states must be aware of and respect their normative foundations as providers of principles. That is, only as long as a liberal democracy can ensure cultural continuation of the principles of modern liberal constitutions, can it really expect to find sufficient support within society. To achieve this requires first of all that liberal democracies recognize the need for a functioning political public. The public has therefore to be taken seriously, and has to be safeguarded by the governing classes.

In many ways Habermas’s work is a lucid study of the origins, nature, and evolution of public opinion in democratic societies, although he naturally did not anticipate the changes nowadays occurring in the form of the so-called ‘digital revolution’.

Recently, in a rather philosophical approach, Volker Gerhardt took up the topic of public life in his work Öffentlichkeit: Die politische Form des Bewusstseins (The Public: The Political Form of Consciousness, 2012). Starting from ancient Greece, all the way through Western political history up to the present, this somewhat highbrow book deals with a new level of publicness (or ‘publicity’). Gerhardt takes up Cicero’s formula of homo publicus, stating: “Under the conditions of [that is, when being part of] the public any human being [Dasein] is exemplary” (p.534). If we have any agreement with Gerhardt that the meaning of ‘the public’ is only fulfilled through political organization, and that the very sense of the political public is participation (meaning representation, as well as conforming to the political order through its rules) – and if we can with the later Wittgenstein talk of the deep-rooted social meaning of words and form of consciousness – then it is its political embeddedness and significance which constitutes and defines ‘the public’, rather than the public defining what constitutes political embeddedness and significance. However, it is not our aim here to sketch out the development of the concept of the public and publicity in the history of Western social and political philosophy, but instead to raise some issues through the more down-to-earth philosophy of American pragmatism, according to its greatest exponent, John Dewey (1859-1952).

Dewey’s Public

John Dewey (1859-1952)

In a well-known series of lectures, published in 1927 as The Public and its Problems, John Dewey addressed certain conceptual problems concerning democratic society in the light of new communication and media technologies – at that time, international radio traffic, as well as communication by telegraphy and telephones. Due to his mistrust of general abstract concepts such as ‘the state’, ‘the public’, ‘absolute ideas’, etc, Dewey starts from the basic conviction that only individuals act – not groups or ‘the public in general’: “It is [the difference] between persons in their private and their official representative character” which makes for a public action, he writes; but groups only act through individuals in their so-called ‘public’ actions. This understanding of action is central to Dewey’s notion of ‘the public’: “This public is organized and made effective by means of representatives who as guardians of custom, as legislators, as executives, judges etc, care for its especial interests by methods intended to regulate the conjoint actions of individuals and groups. Then and in so far, association adds to itself political organization, and something which may be government comes into being: the public is a political state” (p.35). It is indeed the difference between direct interaction, or face-to-face communication between people, and the indirect extended consequences of actions, which defines the public character of actions, and so public institutions and the like: public actions have extended consequences.

Dewey was inspired in his thinking in this area by Walter Lippmann’s pessimism about the possibility of coming to grips with the political philosophical foundations for a commonality of public opinions in all of their diversity – that is, for finding the philosophical foundations for a pluralist politics. Dewey is well aware that there are many, even “too many publics and too much of public concern for our existing resources to cope with. The problem of a democratically organized public is primarily and essentially an intellectual problem, in a degree to which the political affairs of prior ages offer no parallel” (p.17). However, the “indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (p.126). A democratically organized public is also created through the then-new technologies of communication and the unbelievably extended (intercontinental, even) impact of instantaneous communication by telephone or telegraph, or mass media such as the radio: “Steam and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all agencies which affected human relationships before our time” (p.141). Thus, “we have the physical tools of communication as never before” (p.142) – making a ‘Great Society’ of communication, but which is not yet a ‘community’ (p.98). Indeed, as he writes, “the machine age has so enormously expanded, multiplied, intensified and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences, has formed such immense and consolidated unions of action, on an impersonal rather than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and distinguish itself” (p.126.) A great transformation of communication and so of the means of indirect influence and impact has taken place, but nothing so great had “taken place in ideas and ideals” (ibid). And for Dewey, ‘the Great Society’ cannot transform itself towards a more just and equal ‘Great Community’ without a fundamental change in ideas and concepts. In addition, all the instrumentalized transactions, behaviors and communications, are handled by experts and/or all sorts of public agents, that is, by public office holders or political agents: ‘the public’ acts only through ‘concrete persons’ – the politicians, who “ represent a Public” (p.75). Generally speaking, “we seem to be approaching a state of government by hired promoters of opinion called publicity agents” he writes (p.169). Dewey has thus imagined a sort of ‘technocracy’ of new communicative technologies rendering “a great transformation of society” – towards its being a social machine run by political agents, creating a network of indirect and extended consequences of behaviors, without close face-to-face human relationships or any orientation towards local groups or the neighborhood community. Therefore the overall structure of decision-making in democratic and political processes tends to become rather abstract and distanced from any practical basis in direct human interaction that depends on traditional relationships and socially transmitted information. Yet as Dewey explicitly emphasizes, “a community must always remain a matter of face-to-face intercourse” (p.211), and “democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community” (p.213), and “Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find and identify itself” (p.216).

Information Technology Impacts The Public

Dewey’s hypothesis regarding the powerful impact and extension of communication technology is also correct for our modern dynamic worldwide media society with its pervasive real-time telecommunications – so much so that it no longer makes much sense to differentiate between the private and the public. Even the conceptual distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ is continually dissolving on the net. A clear and plain difference between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ communication will not do anymore, either. What can ‘direct communication’ mean today in the light of all the new global means of digital real time interaction and information transfer, utilising television, video conferencing, Skype, etc? Do we not consequently need to update our concept of ‘direct interaction’ from the traditional real physical face-to-face concept, to include the ‘face-to-face’ immediacy available through the internet? Or are FaceTime, video conferencing and Skype not direct communicative interaction? Consider that with any visual communication, all the signs that constitute direct response, including signs of emotions and mood and the subtle differentiations of meanings of all sorts, are in a way immediately transferred with all the vivacity possible in a physical presence – or at least almost all!

Furthermore, ubiquitous computing, especially in the instantaneous communication between and automatic decision-making by computers in the stockmarket, has immediate and highly consequential consequences, at the rate of perhaps billions of dollars a day. In addition, the possibility of all-pervasive ‘democratic’ voting, by agreement or through ‘like’ buttons, and the simultaneous intercommunication between the peoples of most nations, may allow various mass-voting procedures and almost-instantaneous mass public agreements. A powerful quasi-voting process and consensus-reaching indeed does already occur on the net, sometimes on a national, at other times on an international level. In our electronic multi-media age, interactive ‘internet revolutions’ and uproars occur and even upset political regimes – as demonstrated by the Arab Spring recently, for just one example. The new media communication indeed figures as a powerful mediator and leverage of societal and political change, then, with quite radical or even revolutionary consequences. So Dewey was right about the influence of communication media, although he only knew of radio and telephone communication and could not have foreseen the possibilities and extended feasibilities of digital communication and the multimedia of our day. In a sense, however, he had a real inkling of the formative social power of such phenomena, as regards the expansion of influence over and speed of reaction of people to actions and events, as well as of the challenging nature of media impacts, active as well as passive. The vivid, emotion-conveying multimedia interactions of today fit really well into his hypothesis about the impact and efficacy of communication media, positive and negative. So nowadays a powerful social media uproar may amount to a sort of ‘media revolution’ which can on the one hand topple dictatorships, and on the other hand, serve an individual’s freedom.

Immediate multimedia communications of such a planetary provenance may turn out to be judged largely positive, fostering and increasing individual as well as social freedom. However, it can clearly also be used for mobbing, trolling, and all sorts of wide-range depreciation, malicious insults, even betrayals and cheating, data-mining, electronic spying, etc. There are certainly unethical ecommunications not only on a private level but with wider dissemination.

Debates as well as arguments and the dissemination of allegations in the negative sense are spread over the telemedia, and this is certainly to be considered a public (in the everyday sense – that is, an indirect and widely disseminated) consequence of a conscious communicative action. It is also necessarily a ‘public’ consequence in Dewey’s sense, since it allows potentially worldwide responsiveness and resonance in real-time. And for some, privacy seems to be dissolved on the net. Indeed, the basic categories of the ‘private vs. public’ distinction have to take a new form adapted to the potentialities of new media and the ubiquitous worldwide responsiveness called ‘telepresence’. Modern communication technology can foster a union of the private and the public (in Dewey’s sense) and thus blur the line between ‘private’ and ‘public’ as much as it blurs the meaning of ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’. Therefore, it seems that the basic presuppositions of Dewey’s private-public divisions must be forsaken. Privacy and publicity are merging into one another these days. Some people are really that keen on making their privacy public, on putting it out and online – even their disgusting harmfulness or criminal behavior. There seems even to be a trend to publicise orgies – for example, nude and swinger parties – and for all sorts of self-prostitution on the net.

Internet Ethics

To a certain degree the problems of the misuse of the internet, and especially of social media, are like the problems of other ‘dual use’ technologies, where a technology can be used for harm as well as for good; for example in the development of arms. However, it is not sufficient just to acknowledge that nearly any kind of technology can be used for good or bad purposes. The further question springs up, whether the technologists and experts are to be held responsible for a given technology’s potential to be used for malevolent purposes by third parties. Some dual use theories do imply that the potential for any kind of harmful use should give rise to debate on the responsibility of the technologists and experts, as well as of the practitioners, linked to an awareness about whether that technology will contribute to negative future outcomes. Often such thinking gives rise to a cost-benefit-balancing, However, such thinking doesn’t understand that to classify something as dual use in advance may often mean only that the technology might in practice have some bad use, or even that some bad use is thinkable in theory. And if everything that might lead to bad use were classified as dual use, we would end up with an unmanageable amount of dual use artifacts and technologies, far beyond our ability to control. As we all know, a kitchen knife can be used as an instrument for killing someone, just as a pair of scissors can be misused to stab people. Having said this, nobody practically considers these two objects in terms of being dual use artifacts or technologies. There must be more to an artifact or technology to make it a dual use case. So to call all or nearly all objects and technologies ‘dual use’ would be more than unreasonable; it would in fact be rather senseless to make such an unusable differentiation, due to the numerous objects or technologies involved.

This problem of classifying dual use is aggravated by the fact that no generally accepted definition of ‘dual use’ exists so far. According to John Forge in ‘A Note on the Definition of “Dual Use”’, “One of the difficulties in giving a workable definition of dual use could be because the term is used to qualify different and seemingly unrelated sorts of things, technology, research, experiments and products or artifacts” (Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol.16, 2010, p.112). Furthermore, the dual use concept might distort the experienced reality somehow – the metaphor does not take into consideration the fact that there can be multiple uses and not just two, making the whole problem of ‘good or bad use’ even more complex. In any case, when it comes to misusing the internet or social media, indeed the categories of ‘legal’ or ‘criminal’ might be more helpful. As Hans-Jörg Ehni says in ‘Dual Use and the Ethical Responsibility of Scientists’: “Applications can be legal or criminal, such as doping in sports or possible terrorist attacks with modified pathogenic organisms. The latter is the kind of dual use that calls for strict juridical regulation” (Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis, Vol. 56, 2008, p.148). Beyond the distinctions of ‘legal’ versus ‘criminal’, or ‘harmful’ versus ‘good’, one more pair of oppositions could also be introduced: ‘intended’ versus ‘unintended’ (cf Ehni, p.147). However, this differentiation might not be as helpful as in particular the ‘legal-criminal’ distinction, given that the underlying question is how to define dual use in order to define its membership criteria and/or judge and punish the misuser of the technology. Reflections might also lead to the requiring of education initiatives, or codes of conduct and policy initiatives, which should together facilitate implementation of various countermeasures against large-scale misuse.

Generally the point is that it is neither the internet nor social media as such which cause harm, but their application. In many ways the new technology is Janus-faced. It offers attractive opportunities and more freedom for the individual; it can also be used for criminal purposes and to limit the freedom of the individual by data mining, unprecedented electronic spying, mobbing, trolling, and all sorts of wide-range character assassinations. But again, the fact that a new technology such as the internet can be misused for criminal or generally unethical purposes is not an ethical problem in itself (cf Ehni, p.148). Nevertheless, without any doubt, it is the right of national or international regulators to protect their citizens or clients from harm from the internet, and especially from social media abuse.

The blurring of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ in Dewey’s sense will prove to create a difficult balancing act for regulators in the near future. A mixture of voluntary ethical codes of conduct and education initiatives, as well as strict legal regulation when it comes to criminal activities, seems to be a justified and viable strategy – a strategy which should allow the dynamics of the internet and social media to unfold conducively.

© Hans Lenk and Ulrich Arnswald, 2014

Hans Lenk is Professor Emeritus at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and former President of the International Institute of Philosophy (a world academy of philosophers). Ulrich Arnswald is a Privatdozent (lecturer) at the KIT .


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