Publics, Old and New.
Individuals and Communities, part three.

     In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas traces the development of what he terms "the public sphere" in 17th and 18th century Europe. Habermas traces the development of the "public sphere" from the French court to salons, and finally to the coffee houses in 1680-1730 that flourished in London, as well as "Table Societies" in Germany. Habermas demonstrates how the rising bourgeois class gained social power through the open communication of private ideas in these coffee shops and informal public meeting places. He then points out that laws and the structure of society began to change as a result of the increased public communication among private individuals. The growing participation of increasingly "average" ( a parallel to our concept of "middle class") citizens in the creation of rules and a social order that would reflect their interests meant that standards of "reason" and "law" became more and more subject to wider public mediation.

     Habermas writes of German societies in Leipzig in 1727: "As it put in one of their founding documents, their intent was ‘that in such a manner an equality and association among persons of unequal social status might be brought about.’ " 

     Our Internet discussions of democratizing effects and increased flow of ideas in the public sphere are very much like Habermas’ descriptions of the coffee houses and societies of long past. Habermas describes how coffee houses encouraged dialogue through letter writing and replies to discussions and ideas, and how printed "weeklies" circulated the latest debates for the patrons to see. There is even a class parallel, as the coffee house patrons were relatively well-to–do, just like those of us today who have the money and time to own and learn to use computers. 

     Might we expect to see developments in social society similar to those Habermas identifies result from widespread Internet use? If the web has any potential for increased communication and increased political participation and coalescence, how will this occur?   This is the focus of the  next part of this section.


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