The Computer-Mediated Public Sphere and the Cosmopolitan Ideal


Robyn Brothers


Globalization as a process has intensified to the point where a new social, political, and economic condition has taken hold in the global arena. Recently this condition has been termed “globality” — a term denoting a networked world characterized by speed, mobility, risk, insecurity, and flexibility. Mandeville’s famous fable of the bees and Adam Smith’s response hold renewed interest for anyone questioning the morals of globality. As advances in ICT inaugurate an era in which economics might take precedence over politics, can we be sure that self-interest promotes the greater good by way of providing opportunity? There has been a rapid rise of enormous multinational corporations seeking investment opportunities countered by increasingly ineffective NGOs aiming to temper the breakneck speed of capital and the inequities left behind in its wake. Those countries eager to be included in the network society welcome these large, corporate transnational actors, but remain vulnerable both politically and culturally. Even the G8 countries are at risk as the meaning of the words democracy, sovereignty, nation, and agency devolve. The world citizen, as an actor in this new sphere where nothing is certain, is set loose from national moorings and is left wondering whom to trust, and in whose name to act. It is occasionally remarked in these times that no one ever died with the words “free market” on their lips. Actors in this new era of globality may not always act according to economic models of rational self-interest. Franics Fukuyama has shown that trust and ethical habits vary according to cultural and societal narratives, and as Jean-Pierre Dupuy puts it: in leaving behind the political, economics signs its own death warrant.

In this paper, I am concerned then with this increasingly jeopardized sphere of the political as a sphere where the social and ethical values of accountability, trust, and solidarity occasion its existence. With the decline of the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state, this sphere of ethical and political agency must expand globally and that is indeed the challenge ). The engine driving the process and sustaining this condition is the rapid and constant innovation in communications technologies. It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that increased connectivity does not necessarily translate into global solidarity. In fact, the two forces of connectivity and solidarity seem to be growing in inverse proportion to one another. Habermas has noted this recently by saying: “Whereas the growth of systems and networks multiplies possible contacts and exchanges of information, it does not lead per se to the expansion of an intersubjectively shared world and to the discursive interweaving of conceptions of relevance, themes, and contributions from which political public spheres arise.” He joins many philosophers who are looking away from Hobbes and again to Kant for some brand of cosmopolitanism suitable for today’s networked society. In response to the attractive moral and political model of cosmopolitanism, this paper offers an overview of some of the conceptual limitations to that model arising from computer-mediated, interest-based social interaction. In particular, I discuss James Bohman’s definition of the global and cosmopolitan spheres and how computer-mediated communication might impact the development of those spheres. Additionally, I question the commitment to purely rational models of social cooperation when theorizing a computer-mediated global public sphere, exploring recent alternatives. And finally, I discuss a few of the political and epistemic constraints on participation in the computer-mediated public sphere that threaten the cosmopolitan ideal.