The contemporary public arena

5.5. The contemporary public arenaΒΆ

The contemporary constellation of the public arena looks different from the past. Digital technology has weakened traditional structures, introduced new one, and led to much soul-searching and norm-shifting for actors providing structures of the public arena and competing within it. These shifts mean that both public and society need to adjust their expectations of and practices within the public arena. But also academia needs to adjust to these new constellations.

While these shifts are associated with great fears for our democracy or the quality of discourse, they also bring tremendous research opportunities. Empirical research is challenged to examine the nature, functions, and power relationships between structures of the public arena old and new. How do news media differ from new digital platforms or how do they resemble each other? What can we learn from the study of one type of structure about others?

Also, empirical research needs to find ways to examine patterns of information flow, discourse dynamics, and interaction behavior within the contemporary public arena. How does information flow between structures old and new? Do new features of structures influence the way discursive competition happens between actors in the public arena or can we observe shifts in power? Or how do people behave when engaging in political exchanges in structures old and new?

Finally, empirical research also needs to focus on outcomes. What are the effects of the new constellation of structures within the public arena. Do digital media contribute to polarization within society? What does algorithmic shaping do for information exposure and attitude formation? And is there evidence for more or different paths to radicalization in the new public arena?

But of course, we do not only need empirical research. Maybe the primary task right now lies with the development of theoretical or normative concepts of what to expect from the contemporary public arena. What are the functions and normative goals we demand from news media or digital platforms hosting the contemporary public arena? What do we expect from political elites competing under the changed conditions of the contemporary public arena? And what do we expect from the public? The contemporary public arena brings many opportunities for people, elites, and society. But to capitalize on them, we need to have a better understanding of its shape, dynamics, and effects. Here, there is clear need for creative but empirically grounded conceptual, theoretical, and normative work.

Importantly, this goes beyond easy critiques in the mode of supposed deterministic societal decline, as for example in the mold of surveillance capitalism. Too often work like this is empirically ill founded and follows a critical stance that sees capitalism or for-profit companies as the source of all evil. These works tell us little about actual changes within the public arena, its effects on individuals and society, and ultimately do not offer much of a way forward. Besides of course abolishing capitalism. Instead, we need to become better at understanding what is actually happening (in other words establishing meaningful transparency for structures of the public arena old and new) and surfacing and negotiating tensions that exist within and between structures of the public arena (old and new) and actors competing within it.

The new structures of the public area are here to stay. As we have seen, they mitigate some of the ills of previous constellations within the public arena but at the same time introduce some new ills and inspire new worries. It is up to society to figure out the norms and practices allowing us to pursue the public good under these new conditions. Turning back the clock is not an option! Neither should it be, given the well-understood but currently often ignored ills of a public arena dominated by a few powerful structures heavily aligned with the powers-that-be in economy, politics, and society. The current structural transformations of the public arena are noisy, contested, and surface very real political and societal tensions and fractures. But engaged constructively and creatively, these transformations can be used to strengthen societies by engaging these tensions and fractures instead of weakening it by trying to ignore and to hide them.