Follow-up on the Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies

This will be my final post about the conference we hosted at Columbia little more than a month ago.

I have updated my posts about the three keynote presentations to include summaries of the discussions that followed.

The discussion is also raging elsewhere, both on- and offline (Benkler has reacted on the New Republic piece that Starr’s presentation was based on–see his piece here). It can be followed through the set of links and tagged pages aggregated here. Anything tagged with ‘cdpc09’ on delicious will be added to the list automatically, so tag away if you encounter or produce something.

After the conference, I emailed many of the participants to ask about their reactions to the day’s discussions. I will obviously not post these emails here, but I would like to offer a digest of some of the reactions I received.

Rather crudely, but perhaps usefully, many reactions can be grouped in two camps:

One group of people thought we spend too much time discussing the future of the newspaper as we have come to know it as an institution in society in the last fifty years. The motivations were diverse, from people arguing that the importance of the newspaper, professional journalism, and hard news might be overestimated (we might soon find out!) to people simply saying they felt that the attention paid to it came to overshadow the wider question of how public controversies play out today across many different and differently interlinked institutions, networks, and infrastructures. Many suggested that rather than lament the potential passing or at least dramatic change of a particular historical institution, we should try to identify the constituent elements of the processes it has animated, and think about how those of them that seem normatively desirable might find new forms in a new communications environment, even as others wither. Personally, it seems to me that this was more or less precisely what Starr and Benkler tried to do, Starr arguing that central parts of what the newspaper has done historically is unlikely to be done if it passes, and Benkler arguing that much of what it has done will be done by others in the future–both have recognized the importance and validity of each others positions, both at the conference, and in their exchange in the New Republic. In a sense, this argument seems largely empirical to me, and thus the repeated call for more research in the emails I have received might be particularly pertinent here.

Another group of people basically wrote back and said that they thought that many were too quick to trust the promise of new technologies, and failed to recognize the links between the more beningn and desirable aspects of actually-existing journalism and the organizations that host it (such as the ability of large news organizations to stand up to the threat of law suits, even if reluctantly (see the NYRB article on the Guardian on that topic here). Basically, yes, we can re-conceive journalism as a process rather than a profession, and it can be disaggregated, and parts of it will find new homes in the new communications environments–there will still be content production, and there will still be news–but the totality we had might have been more than the sum of the parts, and even if the new totalities might have other, new attractive sides (and new dark sides too), it might be important to pause and recognize the value of what we stand to lose.

The commonalities between the two “camps” (that I have constructed…) are I think, more pronounced than the disagreements–everybody seems to agree that more empirical research is called for (good news for the grad students!), and that the changing dynamics of public controversies can only be understood if one takes into account the interplay between and mutual imbrications of technology, norms, institutions, and laws.

As those of us who gathered at the conference, a motley intellectual crew from many different disciplines, turn to face this question with out colleagues elsewhere, it seems to me again important to underline the importance of thinking about some of the conceptual challenges that were discussed after Latour’s presentation at the conference: how useful is the vocabulary we have inherited in this anlaysis? Is Lippmann’s public a good tool to understand the public today? Is Habermas’ still-popular idea of the public sphere? Do we need to turn elsewhere, or mix and match or at least re-interpret old concepts? If the conference has contributed to pushing forwards both the empirical and the conceptual discussion of public controversies, and underlined their importance, I think it has been a success.

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