BLOG POST: The More You Gossip, the More Sophisticated You Become! – Abdul Al Lily
The picture above illustrates what Habermas means by ‘the public sphere,’ i.e. the place where individuals hang out and, as an unintentional part of the conversation, identify and discuss societal issues and problems. This sphere exists not only in face-to-face settings but also in the digital world, although there are major differences between the two. In this blog, I look at these differences, particularly within the Arab world where a married couple have just named their baby ‘Facebook’ in tribute to the role that this digital public sphere played in the Egyptian protest! To begin with, the Arabian face-to-face public sphere tends to maintain hierarchical structures, whereby the oldest, most powerful or most knowledgeable individual dominates the conversation. In comparison, the digital sphere, wherein individuals do not know each other, do not meet in the flesh and are anonymous, has transcended hierarchical structures, political differences and ethnic divisions. This indicates huge changes in the balance of power among members of the public sphere. In the Arabian face-to-face public sphere, individuals tend not to take the risk of explicitly discussing any culturally, socially and/or politically deviant beliefs and perspectives. However, the features of the digital sphere (e.g. the ability to remain anonymous and the individual-oriented aspect) make it easy for one to pass under the ‘radar’ of social visibility, cultural domination and political surveillance.
The face-to-face public sphere is available locally at a micro level, whereas its digital counterpart has broadened contact with the outside world. For example, scores of my non-Egyptian friends joined the Egyptian protest group on Facebook, which means that international people got involved with (or intervened in) an issue involving a certain country, taking seats in its national public sphere. This can be read, on the one hand, as enhancing a sense of global identity, but, on the other hand, as intrusion and meddling. In any case, this involvement of such external elements means adding new actors to the power network and relations in the county. The digital public sphere offers a variety of distinctive facilities and services, such as the possibility of documenting discussions, using multimedia to support these discussions, transcending the limitations of time and space and including those having problems speaking and expressing themselves orally. This sphere can be criticised for excluding people who are illiterate and those who do not use or cannot access the Internet. However, although the face-to-face sphere involves a relatively small number of people, the Egyptian protest community on Facebook involved more than eight hundred thousand protesters, permitting the right of assembly, campaigning and demonstrations.
One might wonder why this post is here on a site concerned with learning and new technologies. The answer is that the public sphere is actually a learning environment for adults, where transformative and emancipatory learning takes place. In this sphere, individuals collectively help each other to make sense of their educational or professional and social life, engaging in critical reflection and going through iterative learning processes of examining, questioning, validating and revising their own assumptions and perceptions. In this sphere, individuals exchange ‘gossip,’ reflecting on what they have read, heard and observed as part of their daily experience, getting engaged in complex analytical processes to make sense of these observations, raising each other’s consciousness, comparing their experiences with those of others and learning about each other’s ways of thinking. In this sphere, people learn about politics and learn from involvement in political discourse. Useful reads in this respect are Mezirow (1990) and Al-Salem (2005).