Criticism by philosopher Jürgen Habermas: Internet eats up discourse

Habermas’ new book is called A New Structural Change in the Public Sphere. He is ahead of the German network discourse.

Habermas leans against a post in a jacket and open shirt

Jürgen Habermas doesn’t look at the internet through rose-tinted glasses Photo: Isolde Ohlbaum/laif

Germany is traditionally late. Founding of an empire, democracy, digitization, arms deliveries to Ukraine. We are a “Late Nation”. So says it Helmuth Plessner in a book reviewed by Jürgen Habermas in 1959. So much for the color of the time, Konrad Adenauer still had four years in office ahead of him.

Now, 63 years later, Habermas publishes a new book: “A new structural change in the public sphere and deliberative politics” (Suhrkamp). Not only his biblical publication span is impressive, but above all the agility, to put it in digital German, with which he tackles the “platform character” of Facebook, Twitter & Co. Habermas becomes a platform thinker. Still applies: where Habermas is, is Germany?

Unfortunately not. Because as a platform thinker and critic, Habermas is far ahead of the German discourse. example sociology. According to Andreas Reckwitz, the platforms give people orientation on the “market of cultural goods” and thus “make it easier” for them to make decisions about curating their own lives.

Berlin Neo-Biedermeier

Habermas refers to this Reckwitz idea. Sure, the internet offers style-defining content that helps with Instagram-ready furnishings in Berlin’s neo-Biedermeier era. Something must be driving the rapid spread of old building alocasia.

But with all sympathy for the cultural and interior-critical tradition of thinking Walter Benjamins: Reckwitz’ understanding of the platform is too idealistic and also apolitical. He confuses leaf shape and platform. In the old analog days there was a kaleidoscope of media channels: newspapers, advertising columns, furniture designers, galleries, magazines, television, radio and so on.

Thousands of analog influencers commented on the world through their channel, trying to convince people of views, trends and offers. This is Habermas’ “public”. Today, there are fewer than a handful of digital platforms whose secretive algorithms pursue a single goal, which is to euphemistically increase user engagement. That means: the length of stay and activity on the respective platform. For this reason, the algorithms reward emotionalization, and that means mostly negative emotions. Because they cause escalation.

Sober logic

The algorithms do not follow any political agenda, but only the sober logic of the platform economy. Fake news and hate spread many times faster on the internet than facts and differentiation. The effect on users is anything but sober, on the contrary. US network pioneer Jaron Lanier calls for the terms “addiction” and “behavioural manipulation” to be used instead of the euphemism “engagement”. There is also an economic misunderstanding that is still widespread.

Because the platforms function via network effects and self-reinforcement, no longer via the economies of scale of the industrial age. Economies of scale bring about cost advantages through mass production and higher quantities, which lower the unit price. The network effects of the digital economy are quite different. They mean that the more people use a product or service, the more valuable it becomes for each user. In this way, the network effects create a self-reinforcing pull into monopoly.

This is the winner-takes-it-all principle of the platform economy. It explains why a handful of platforms have become global monopolies in just a few years. In the western world today, Google is the search engine, Amazon is the online retailer and Facebook is the social network. Competition and thus diversity in the old sense no longer exist here. The paradox is: there is competition – but only on the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram channels.

Economic Escalation Agenda

The German discourse overlooks this curating monopoly of the platforms, their indifference, indeed expressly declared irresponsibility towards any content, as well as their economic escalation agenda – but not Habermas.

Technology and economy have always shaped culture. The Instagram attitude of I’m-so-pretty-and-yet-so-sad, the Twitter polarization into angry citizens and moralizers, the loss of reality in Facebook’s echo chambers are all effects of the platform economy. Technology formats culture and society, as Friedrich Nietzsche and Marshall McLuhan had already established: not only do we humans shape the machines and the media, they also shape us.

The Reformation would not have prevailed against the Catholic Church without the printing press and leaflets, and the Enlightenment would not have prevailed without the printing press. In the 19th century, the steam engine and mechanization brought capitalist excesses and proletarian misery, but also trade unions, the welfare state and Marxism.

Half fist, half idiot

In other words: all cultural and social phenomena have their technological and economic prerequisites, one could also say: a priori. In this sense, Shoshana Zuboff describes the world we live in as digitally implemented surveillance capitalism that has to be contained by state regulation. Because greed is cool, people think, and – half fist, half idiot – would rather pay with their data than with their money.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are successful digital subscription models like Spotify and Netflix, even on social media: LinkedIn Premium. So it might be worth following Jaron Lanier and boycotting social media with him until they change their business model.

As long as the attention economy fuels the riot, there will never be a discourse in which, according to Habermas, the “informal compulsion of the better argument” prevails. That is exactly his concern when he speaks of the “drying up” of “deliberation”, the “rationalizing power of public debates” without which democracy cannot do.

dialectics of platforms

But as insistently as Habermas invokes the platforms as a threat to liberal democracy, he also sees their positive sides just as clearly. #metoo, #fridaysforfuture and #blacklivesmatter are movements whose “self-empowerment” only became possible through social media. The platforms also have their dialectics.

However, that precisely the, in Habermas’ words, “great[n] emancipatory[n] Promises” of social media are one-sidedly overemphasized by established digital influencers like Sascha Lobo, which is not surprising. Because they are biased to the extent that their own publicity returns depend on the platforms. Or as Habermas writes: “Influencers[n]who solicit the approval of followers for their own program and their own reputation”, it is about “public[] Visibility” and “distinction gain”.

Habermas’ conclusion sounds vague to the Federal President. It is “a constitutional requirement to maintain a media structure that enables the inclusive character of the public and a deliberative character of public opinion and decision-making.”

Skepticism about one’s own courage

How is this supposed to work? Is it still possible? Habermas leaves that open. Perhaps he is skeptical about his own disruptive courage. At one point he speaks of the “possibly [!] disruptive[n] “Effects” of the platform media “on the political public”, although the evidence of these disruptive effects is reason enough for him to rethink the “structural change of the public sphere”.

As early as 2008, Habermas had written: “[D]he market once formed the stage on which subversive thoughts” in newspapers, magazines and literature “could emancipate themselves from state oppression. But the market can only fulfill this function so long as the laws of economics do not intrude into the pores of the very cultural and political content that is disseminated through the market. This is still the core of Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.”

In 2022, Habermas seems to have overlooked the fact that this intrusion has long since taken place. Today, not only does the content follow the platform logic, not only is the content platform-optimized, but also platform-generated. Never before, with McLuhan, has the medium hit the message so brutally. Social media ruins the discourse. But we can do something about it, a little, right now. We can stop retweeting things that upset us in seconds to upset others. Just keep your finger still. Let’s think about it, half an hour or so.

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