2020 Special Focus—Solidarity in the Digital Public Sphere: From Extremes to Common Ground?

As a shared common communicative space, the digital public sphere is everywhere and nowhere. Adding to this ephemeral quality, a foundational myth was for a while frequently presented, utopian in its dimensions. Digital communication technologies, it was argued, would in their nature expand the scope of public discourse by broadening the participatory possibilities for communicating actors, knowledge, and cultures. The emergence of the internet offered new possibilities in the form if its tools of deliberation and collective decision-making. Would this technology open new modalities of social solidarity? Could new processes of consensus-building emerge? Would this be a harbinger of transformative collective identities? During the early 2000s, this idea of solidarity goes in hand with the liberal democratic model of human development and the promise of neo-liberal equilibrium.

This foundational utopian myth is now in ruins. Rather than broadening, we see more scaling down of political discourse: filter bubbles, discourse silos, and echo chambers. It seems there is not more transparency but less, with disinformation at the core of decision-making processes. At the same time, there has not been a rise in consensus; rather we have witnessed the rise of new agents of division, flamers, and trolls, with mechanized bots intensifying their incivility.

Can the original aspirations for networked humanity be revived? Or were they always fundamentally flawed? The 2020 Special Focus “Solidarity in the Digital Public Sphere: From Extremes or Common Ground?” seeks to address some unresolved questions:

  • The question of space and territory framing consensus. As communicative flows tie us closer, what are our frames of mutual concern and obligation - local, national, transnational?
  • The question of media shaping communicative action. What constraints and opportunities are built into the places where we speak? How do they determine the rules of communication? Media spaces are now not distinct; the wall between media industries and personal communication has been blurred. So too have been the boundaries of private and public.
  • Finally, there is a question of authority, or who is legitimizing political power. Who writes the rules? Rules for whom? Rules for what? Is democracy to be reduced to a crowd of “likes”? Is it a system that is more and more corruptible by commercial and political power?

In this year’s conference, we will work on both diagnosis and prognosis. What is solidarity in the digital public sphere today? What might it be?

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