When I started teaching cultural and media studies over 20 years ago, all paths of enquiry seemed to lead to Jürgen Habermas. His concept of the public sphere was repeatedly cited in relation to the development of the worldwide web. Just as, in Habermas’ account, the London coffee houses of the early 18th century provided a meeting place where are people of rank but below nobility could meet to discuss public affairs, the web was going to provide a public sphere for everybody who had am internet connection. There was concern then, as now, for the millions who lacked such a connection; but the apparent democracy of the web, where every individual could use their mouse and keyboard to have their say, was widely predicted to promise a new age in human communication and understanding.
Today we are offered the Metaverse. I suspect that most people are unsure what this means but it is clearly “meta” – beyond the everyday material world. It is a market of the digital realm, resembling children’s Roblox, where anything can be created and traded as an NFT (non fungible token). A metaverse mega yacht that has recently sold for $650,000 is the most expensive NFT yet sold in The Sandbox virtual world. This is not a universe of public debate, but a digital market for rich players where even the currency exists only online, in “blockchain” technology. What has happened to that idealistic vision of worldwide communication over the worldwide web?
I first realised that there was something wrong with this application of Habermas’ vision when I was coaching a dissertation student who was related to the royal family. She was determined to deal with the intrusion of the press and media into the monarchy, and proposed to construct a set of rules of engagement. Discussing with her that such rules would work, if at all, only with certain sections of the “quality” press, I realised that Habermas’ concept was of a bourgeois public sphere that no longer existed in its imagined form. The public and the press of the late 1990s were very different from Joseph Addison and The Spectator.
This was before social media. Today, most people in developed countries have immediate access via their phones to an effectively unregulated sphere of information and entertainment where almost anything can be published and consumed, and where “bourgeois” rules of conduct and responsibility do not operate. Everybody with an Internet connection can participate, but the Web does not present a public sphere for reasoned debate.
From 1949 until 1987, the US Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to identify and cover issues of public importance and to give airtime to opposing views. Reagan’s revocation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1989 allowed news stations to construct news and comment in line with the assumed preferences of their audiences (and financial backers). It is often argued that this led to the current polarisation of US news media. However, the Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast licences; it would not have impeded the development of cable channels such as CNN and Fox News, nor social media.
In his novel 1984, George Orwell projected a media universe where reality and truth have lost meaning. He imagined ubiquitous television screens that cocooned the citizens of the megastates Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in a fake reality. The difference between Orwell’s forecast and our present reality is not that one illusory worldview is transmitted but that various proponents of the culture wars, each with their own political and financial allegiances, mount a co-dependent spectacle of opposition. Division, as one US commentator remarked, is a good business plan. Our metaverse of countless cable channels and social media is a product of the money and power that maintain the people of Planet Earth in confusion and ignorance.
This metaverse of disinformation is not merely technologically but historically and culturally determined. Despite the rhetoric of “one nation under God”, the US has for nearly two centuries projected two cultural universes. After the Civil War, a large minority did not accept that all men and women were truly created equal. Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people were enforced until the mid 1960s. And racial hate was not resolved by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Affronted by the ascendancy of a Black man to the office of President, white supremacist voters elected Donald Trump as Obama’s successor. Today, in a remarkable realisation of Orwell’s forecast, a majority of Republican voters live in a metaverse as insubstantial as the Sandbox but maintained by Fox News, Newsmax and the echo chamber of social media. They do not believe that Trump lost the 2020 election. And legislators in numerous states are realising the intention of the illusion by changing voting laws to further disenfranchise Black and other “minority” voters.
Pandemics and climate change make disregard and perversion of the truth increasingly dangerous. The human world of Planet Earth will come to an end if Habermas’ vision of an informed public sphere cannot be realised. Investors in the Metaverse may, as The Baffler suggests, buy up fake land and fake homes that exist only within energy-guzzling servers stored in a desert air-conditioned warehouse. The people of the threatened human world need to learn and discuss truthful information about the real state of things.