Podcasting 2.0 – The Global Village
As long as humanity has been around, we have, in one way or another, commented on things.
Why does this need to be said? It's recently been taken for granted.
agora, in ancient Greek cities, an open space that served as a meeting ground for various activities of the citizens. The name, first found in the works of Homer, connotes both the assembly of the people as well as the physical setting. It was applied by the classical Greeks of the 5th century BCE to what they regarded as a typical feature of their life: their daily religious, political, judicial, social, and commercial activity. -- Encyclopedia Britannica - emphasis mine
There was a time when public commentary was so valued by society that they planned their cities around it. These were not merely public squares in the center of town, but included features to allow or even encourage casual everyday discourse.
Discourse and, indeed, debate, were not only regularly practiced by our ancient ancestors but conceived as a civic duty and an essential element in decision making at the personal, interpersonal, and community levels. Discussion was considered a vital part of what made culture healthy.
In hindsight, agorae may have been some of the first instances of citizens gathering in public spaces utilizing what Jürgen Habermas refers to as an Ideal Speech Situation:
- Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
- a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever. b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse. c. Everyone is allowed to express their attitudes, desires and needs without any hesitation.
- No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2)
The Public Sphere
Fast forward to the Renaissance era and the technological revolution of the printing press. Information began to be disseminated one way, unchanged, en masse; literature was no longer limited to scholars and those who could otherwise afford the expense of handwritten material; it became popular to be educated, literate, and informed.
The rise of the middle class began participation within what Habermas would refer to as the Public Sphere. An educated person would go to a coffee house, for example, practice their literacy to become informed about current political events, and debate what they'd learned with other participants of this public discourse.
Altogether, this was an ideal situation that seemed to become the modern continuation of the agora and the democratic processes associated with the birthplace of democracy.
Further into the future, technology would improve upon the ways in which citizens could be informed. With the advent of radio, one no longer had to be literate to be informed; they merely needed to be able to listen. Moving pictures and television would change this further by allowing people to see information with their own eyes.
The most important virtue to come out of the Enlightenment period — being informed as a role of public discourse — could more easily be practiced as a natural course of every day life. To the rational mind, seeing and hearing information for yourself was the most efficient way of becoming informed; a critical trait in an expanding world of global information.
Literacy, though still valued as a part of education, was no longer deemed a necessity to become an informed citizen, in favor of efficient information consumption.
The beginning of the Internet would appear to offer a glimpse of respite from traditional mass media. Information would be distributed across the world and anyone online would be able to access anything made publicly available.
Almost over night, anyone could host a website, start a blog, and write to their heart's content. No longer did one need the resources of a printing press to get their opinion out into the public.
People wrote. Ideas were published. Even more people had an opportunity to say their piece.
The overload of information was so great that, in order to reliably consume anything deemed relevant to public discourse, information filters and information compression became a necessity.
At first there were directories: “trusted,” well-known locations on the Internet that were treated as the gateways to relevant information. Some websites would become popular destinations to visit directly, alike to one's favorite newspaper, radio channel, or television station. The more “tech-savvy” people would go on to create clever means of subscribing to updates of information.
For those that wanted the most choice to keep up with the information overload that would come, the use of search engines such as Google would prevail.
In some level of irony, even the most decentralized services, such as email, had been co-opted by large technology companies to make choice less of a concern for consumers. Email fatigue became a well-known phenomenon, where people are inundated by so much information they either ignore it entirely or otherwise seek information filters to make the information easier to consume. These filters would become a service to many, commonly offered for free.
Even when some manner of written language saw a resurgence in popularity via technology, society had already been several generations removed from expectations of literate critical thinking let alone the role of public discourse.
Modern society began to value information so little, we'd chosen to give away our ability to think critically about information of which we'd be informed.
But at least we'd be informed. Right?
Unfortunately, there are those with parasitic intent to their communication: Brand representatives, salespeople, political figures, or even those whom rely on advertising as a source of income. The list goes on and one can reasonably assume this communication breaks the doctrines of the Ideal Speech Situation previously mentioned.
These are entities that use our society's desire to remain informed through an appeal to reason via strategic rationality:
Habermas' communication theory differentiates between two kinds of rationality, the emancipative communicative reasoning and the strategic or instrumental thinking. Hence, social action can be either success oriented strategic action or understanding-oriented communicative action. Strategic action is purposive-rational action oriented towards other persons from a utilitarian point of view, for example calculative manipulation of others. In other words, an actor who acts strategically is primarily trying to achieve his own ends. In contrast, communicative action is oriented towards mutual conflict resolution through compromise. -- Communicative versus Strategic Rationality: Habermas Theory of Communicative Action and the Social Brain, Schaefer, Heinze, Rotte, and Denke, 29 May 2013 – emphasis mine
Surely these actors of strategic rationality can be called out via public discourse. That's what it's for, after all.
How, then, do we participate in public discourse in the disconnected world of the Internet?
Some blogs would enable “comment sections,” but these suffered a new problem, albeit formed out of good intentions — epistemic bubbles:
An 'epistemic bubble' is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission. That omission might be purposeful: we might be selectively avoiding contact with contrary views because, say, they make us uncomfortable. As social scientists tell us, we like to engage in selective exposure, seeking out information that confirms our own worldview. But that omission can also be entirely inadvertent.... When we take networks built for social reasons and start using them as our information feeds, we tend to miss out on contrary views and run into exaggerated degrees of agreement. -- Escape the echo chamber, C Thi Nguyen, 9 April 2018
In this age of information, merely having something available to the public was not enough. As previously mentioned, people are already using information filters to choose what they are informed of and, by extension, omitting other information.
A natural reaction to epistemic bubbles is to to attempt to recreate the Public Sphere, and so social networks would come to be. Myspace. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube.
Unfortunately, in combination with the lack of desirable literate critical thinking, these social networks would begin to replace epistemic bubbles with echo chambers:
An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders... an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.
In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. -- Escape the echo chamber, C Thi Nguyen, 9 April 2018
When the echo chamber replaces the role of public discourse, ideas aren't given air to breathe and minds fail to be changed. Further, we as a people cut ourselves off from a known, proven form of learning from and understanding each other.
In contrast to the agora of old, today's social media threads and comment sections fail miserably at inviting true communication. There is little effort needed to dash off one's opinions, very little at stake for doing so, and, importantly, little opportunity for the traditional give and take of fruitful debate.
Furthermore, none of the parties defined in the disciplines of the Ideal Speech Situation maintain an ownership role in the social networks in use. That had already been given up, by choice, for the sake of efficiency of being informed.
As a result of our desire to be informed throughout this tumultuous period of rapid technological innovation, we have consented to absorb information through means that have become ever more filtered, compressed, and outright manufactured. The Public Sphere, instead of a modern digital realization of agorae, has been twisted into a platform of manufactured consent:
The thesis of Manufacturing Consent is that although the mainstream media outlets have traditionally been regarded as bastions of truth-seeking journalists committed to holding those in power accountable and informing the American people of current events, they are in actuality another branch of the established order that is charged with keeping the status quo. —Manufacturing Consent – Part 1, Mike Miressi, 7 July 2019
In some cases we're even given multiple platforms, such is the illusion of choice, for the sake of being adequately informed.
Moderation is lauded over us as a means to keep us safe, a perfect example of Strategic Rationality. Every single doctrine of the Ideal Speech Situation is now broken. Discussion of fundamental laws relating to public discourse eventually end up under fire because the moderators will always have reason to achieve their own ends.
Examined closer, the very realization of centralized technology as the Public Sphere begins to appear as the echo chamber itself.
The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust. -- Escape the echo chamber, C Thi Nguyen, 9 April 2018
In order to break out of this echo chamber of manufactured consent, we must attack the foundations of the echo chamber itself: Information filters, information compression, and information control.
Podcasting is not immune, though it's begun to solve the issues of information compression. With such an open format, many people have experimented with longer lasting shows not limited to distilled bits of dialogue, now often several hours long.
It's also solved half of the problem of information control in that no entity is necessarily in command of a source of truth for how people find and listen.
However, it built upon a technology which enables applications to receive regular updates to information asynchronously, originally for written language and later modified for audio/video mediums. One might even argue it made the problem of lack of participation in public discourse even worse and the consumption of information less engaging than ever in the name of efficiency.
The few exceptions that attempt to invite public discourse either choose to do so via the chaotic control of echo chambers on social platforms or segregated epistemic bubbles relegated to the most dedicated participants.
Podcasting does, nevertheless, present a unique chance for us to remedy its flaws by embracing openness further via architecture:
Yet the most urgent social requirement for democratic deliberation today is that people concentrate rather than “surf” social reality. It is for this reason that I’ve come to believe that designers need to pay attention to the architecture of theatres as possible political spaces. Live theatre aims at concentrating the attention of those within it. To achieve sustained attention, to commit people to one another even when the going gets rough or becomes boring, to unpack the meaning of arguments, all require a disciplinary space for the eye and the voice. -- Concentrating minds: how the Greeks designed spaces for public debate, Richard Sennett, 1 November 2016
While Sennett writes about physical architecture, the thought easily applies to modern technology as the agorae and theatres of our ancestors; Podcasting as the modern extension of our consciousness: our ability to hear, see, and participate in public discourse amongst our tribes in a globally, perhaps soon intrasolar, connected ecosystem.
We are only missing one piece.
The Global Village
Comparison between the Internet as the modern Public Sphere and the agorae of our ancestors is rather shortsighted without careful consideration of two critical properties of the information age: Responsibility and participation.
Within The Global Village, freshly broken out of the echo chamber of manufactured consent, we will have built upon the Public Sphere by maintaining the doctrines of the Ideal Speech Situation through the lens of informatics.
We shall evaluate the use of information within any particular technology to:
- Ensure any management of information will not be able to prevent subjects from participating in discourse.
- Subjects will maintain choice to participate in discourse.
- Subjects will maintain responsibility for their role in discourse.
- Consider the court of law as the only judgement on a subject's use of information within discourse.
Back to podcasting, how can we improve upon the status quo? The choice of public discourse doesn't have to be a tough one. The technology exists to help us create ecosystems of decentralized communication, but we haven't had a framework of what that communication should look like.
Applied to the concept of commentary within Podcasting 2.0, the lens of informatics of The Global Village produces something like the following:
- Anyone can join in to engage in commentary with no restrictions beyond the technical limitations of a protocol, just as two humans need to be able to speak the same language to be able to communicate.
- No one has to engage in commentary: Just as a Greek philosopher or citizen might not go to the agora, the creator of a podcast doesn't have to offer a public forum for commentary nor do its listeners have to engage in the public forum. Avoiding direct participation in commentary doesn't make one immune to being discussed.
- Responsibility and liability for any commentary is maintained purely by the one who produces it. No single participant who decides to modify their commentary (perhaps either by edit or removal) can affect the commentary of any other participant.
- Participant's responsibilities include following the rule of law in their respective societies, including recognition of the enforcement of the given law.
Further detail for how any given technology fits into this framework is best left for separate discussion.
What's important is we examine the very foundations of what we think commentary is, how it's affected our lives, and why fitting what we think of as commentary into podcasting is particularly difficult given the norms of society and manufactured consent we are everso accustomed to.
In the end, if we remain in an endless state of talking past each other, it doesn't matter how decentralized technology becomes.
Let us finally become enlightened and stop screaming our frustration at one another; ears covered in incertitude; as if we are at once irresponsible for our own voices while the voices of others appear malignant and untrustworthy.
We shall build The Global Village, lest others surround us by panopticon whilst we scream.