Juergen Habermas recently won the Bruno Kreisky Prize for the advancement of human rights. From Sign and Sight, this excerpt of his acceptance speech, in which he said some interesting things about the European Union, then said this about the Internet:
"Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus."
I’ve read a bit of Habermas with profit. However, I have a few questions here.
- Why is Juergen Habermas winning a human-rights prize? Sure, intellectuals enjoy giving each other prizes. But Juergen Habermas just sits in an office writing books. Then sometimes gives speeches. Shouldn’t the prize go, as it has before, to someone who directly defends human rights, perhaps even risking death?
- Couldn’t Habermas try to contribute something new? In countries which adopted the Internet early, this debate’s been going on for quite some time already, and is pretty well advanced.
- For such a smart guy, Habermas makes a basic mistake: he confuses his private interest with the public’s interest. Of course, he wants "intellectuals" to retain their "power to create a focus" by "critically filter[ing]" the subjects to which the public is supposed to pay attention. He wants this because he’s an intellectual. Habermas assumes it’s a good thing that intellectuals get to "focus" the public’s attention. If you don’t agree with him on this point — and many don’t — then what Habermas says will be irrelevant to you.
- Habermas probably doesn’t know it, but he’s got something in common with American right-wing conservative William F. Buckley, who said the guiding principle of conservativism is to "stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’!" The internet is going to revolutionize the way humans interact whether Habermas likes it or not. What is the point of grumpily attacking it?
- Perhaps the Internet might reduce the impact of certain European intellectuals on shaping public opinion. But what if those intellectuals looked past their own narrow horizon and acknowledge some of the benefits the Internet brings? For instance, making it possible to share unheard-of amounts of information near-simultaneously? Or allowing an audience of millions to check official sources of information and news for bias? Hasn’t it occurred to Habermas that the Internet could also have a usefully "subversive" function in societies with press freedom as well?
- Just how much does Habermas know about the Internet? He cites no particular examples that would convince me he know’s what he’s talking about. Before I take his opinion about the Internet seriously, I have some questions for him. Does he use the Internet on a regular basis? Does he know what Google is? Wikipedia? Has he ever read a blog? Does he know what "blog" means? How about "HTML", "Trackbacks," Trojan horses," or "Flame Wars"? Has he ever visited a chat room? Watched a movie he downloaded?
Just a few questions!