Since the 1962 publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas, the history business has had quite the cottage industry in what might best be called “Public Sphere Studies.” Historians of many stripes–political historians, cultural historians, social historians, and even the occasional economic or military historian–have written reams about the creation, manipulation, or destruction of the public sphere in this or that society. Because his influence has been so great, Habermas certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of those scholars (Clifford Geertz comes to mind as well) who have had a profound influence on historians since the middle of the twentieth century.
I can’t make any sort of claim to expertise in the intricacies of Habermas’ thought, but I know enough to say that the main concern of his earlier work was with the ways that the participation of individuals in political life shaped the development of democratic society and that his later work is more concerned with the ways that states, corporations, and media have taken control of the public sphere to the detriment of democratic development. And when the big boys invade the public sphere, the little guys–average citizens like you and me–tend to sit back and become passive consumers of whatever the big boys produce.
With this gross generalization of Habermas’ thought in our minds, let us turn now to the events in Estonia this month. Maybe your eyes or ears glazed over when you heard the word “Estonia” in the news, or possibly you confused it with Elbonia. But something very serious happened in this little Baltic state during the month of May–something that radically challenges our ideas of what, exactly, the public sphere is and will be in the digital age.
According to a story in today’s New York Times Estonia’s digital infrastructure was subjected to a sustained and almost catastrophic cyber-attack that may or may not have included the participation of officials in the Russian government. Why launch an attack on Estonia’s network you might ask? The precipitating event was the decision by the Estonian government to relocate a statue to Soviet war dead in Estonia–a site of memory that elicits powerful emotions from Estonians of Russian descent who see it as a marker of their heroic efforts to liberate the country from the Nazis and from Estonians of Estonian descent who see it as a marker of Soviet hegemony over their country.
The Estonian government knew they were in for many problems, including cyber-attacks, when they moved the statue, but no one, it seems was prepared for the scale of the assault on Estonia’s network. Over several weeks, millions of computers worldwide were harnessed (some hijacked) into “botnets” that flooded the Estonian network with gazillions of bits of data, largely isolating Estonia from the Internet and almost shutting down the network completely.
So why should historians sit up and take notice? Doesn’t this example just prove what Habermas was saying about the power of governments to manipulate the public sphere–even the new public sphere we call the ‘net?
Only if you accept that this attack on the Estonian network was the product of the Russian government. Just as likely, the Times story says, the attack was the product of ‘hacktivists,’ technical experts who act independently from governments.
For decades hacker culture has been a standard trope of movies and novels–portrayed as a shadowy world populated largely by teenagers with advanced programming skills who work for good or evil after they finish their homework. But now “hacktivism” just might be changing the parameters of the public sphere. With so many average citizens around the world now having either advanced computer skills or enough knowledge of how networks function that they know how to hire someone with those skills, could it be that we are on the cusp of a redefinition of the public sphere? One where the Bryce Lynchs of the world have grown up and become actors in an unfolding worldwide political drama that knows no national boundaries?
How will we define the public sphere then?