This is a short reflection I wrote for a course in Science & Technology Studies (STS) and thought was worth preserving. I include here both the question prompt and my response.
Taking together Ezrahi’s views about science and the media and the views of Dewey, and Thaler and Sunstein from last week, not to mention a host of political issues of this past semester, do you think publics have the capacity to reason collectively about desirable futures? Is the very concept of public reason an anachronism, because the public sphere has vanished under the onslaught of technological change: publics are too ephemeral and fluid, or too mentally incompetent; and reason demands a factual substrate that is too monolithic, stable, and unattainable in a fragmented, postmodern world, where knowledge is power and/or culture all the way down?
Even as older forms of public reason may have vanished, I find myself reacting to this question with some optimism. As someone who thinks mostly about digital spaces, I am inspired by the many examples I see of new forms of — perhaps more fluid, more fragmented — public reasoning and democratic deliberation that emerge online: YouTubers collaborate, using data to analyze the platform’s opaque algorithmic policies on monetization and trending; communities on Reddit and Wikipedia collaborate with researchers to experiment and examine data about moderation decisions; Uber and Lyft drivers meet in online fora to reason together about best practices for taxes, earnings, and so on; elsewhere, platform participants form self-governing platform cooperatives to supplant corporate forms. These modes of reasoning and organization bring together scientific epistemologies as well as lived experiences of community-members to arrive at public understandings; technical analyses are transparent, collaborative, and framed in terms that match community understandings and questions. Results are debated in comment threads and reaction videos. These examples point toward possibilities for digital spaces governed neither by “self-regulating” platforms, armed with invisible nudges and A/B tests to produce “healthy conversation”, nor antitrust economists and expert regulators, optimizing for their own economic ideas of the public interest. Instead, in a Deweyan fashion, publics emerge dynamically around particular problems and mediate between different modes of knowing. While there is perhaps no singular “public sphere”, these examples point towards the persistence of—perhaps novel and more fluid—forms of public reasoning.