In his 1956 book The Power Elite the American sociologist C. Wright Mills sketched the difference between a public and a mass society. He thought this difference could best be understood in terms of the characteristic forms of communication found in each.
The archetype of public communication is a conversation between equals. In a public society ‘virtually as many people express opinions as receive them’ and ‘communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer any opinion expressed in public’. Citizens can also translate its opinions into effective action – the public can change policy as its opinions change. Mills adds that in a public society citizens can respond to what they are told without fear of reprisal. Furthermore they can be secure in the knowledge that ‘no agent of formal authority moves among the autonomous public’.
The archetype of mass communication is a broadcast that delivers one unanswerable voice to millions of listeners. There is little or no scope for individuals to answer back to the messages they receive. Indeed in a mass society perfectly realized even private dissent carries penalties and open disagreement is forbidden. There is certainly no way that the inhabitants of a mass society can translate their opinions into politically effective action. Not only that, ‘the public is terrified into uniformity by the infiltration of informers and the universalization of suspicion’.
The public society and the mass society are two ends of a continuum that stretches from the ideal type of the democratic republic at one end to the ideal type of the totalitarian state at the other. But it is interesting to think about current conditions in the light of Wright’s public/mass distinction.
There are encouraging signs that modern technology is making it possible to reconstruct some of the features of a public society. Social network sites have offered opportunities for politically motivated publics to find one another – a process that clearly played a part in preparing the way for the uprisings in the Middle East, for example.
Direct action in the Middle East, in Europe and in North America greatly increases the chances for public deliberation. The people who gathered in Cairo could see that they were not alone – the isolation and sense of helplessness was removed by what people could say to one another by the simple fact of being in the same place. And mainstream coverage in the West has had to acknowledge at least something of the substance of what hundreds of thousands of people have been saying. Those who like to come over all sensible and say that protests don’t change anything are deluding themselves. The extent to which the media has begun to discuss offshore finance is linked directly to the efforts of the UK Uncut movement, for example. Journalists might want to claim that they took the initiative but it is the spectacle of thousands of people occupying Vodafone stores and Top Shops on Britain’s high streets that made their continued silence untenable.
(As an aside, online communication is in many respects thinner than conversation in the world – those who read and write online cannot experience what it is like to occupy a space together, cannot know how public action feels.)
On the other hand the conversations between equals found online still have only a very tenuous connection with the wider world of broadcast publicity – with the information system that most people rely on in most respects, most of the time. There are highly sophisticated discussions about political economy to be found all over the web, from all kinds of ideological perspectives. But the mainstream coverage of the subject remains all but impervious to them. Those who educate themselves and others by engaging in a respectful debate between equals become increasingly removed from the kinds of assumptions and guiding notions that the majority of their fellow citizens retain. When most people think that managing the economy is an unfathomable mystery they are inclined to gravitate towards authoritative and familiar figures. Those who are unfamiliar and lack authority can sound like cranks. Sometimes they are cranks.
Coverage of demonstrations can still be tilted in all kinds of directions, in ways that obscure or distort the motives of those demonstrating. Witness, for example, how student protests in Britain were illustrated – and to a large extent defined – by images of violent confrontation.
Furthermore, although there are spaces that approximate a digital version of the town-hall meeting, the facts and preferences discovered there do not connect reliably with the general field of publicity – with the stock of things that are widely known and widely known to be widely known. Communities of knowledge are being created but there is a danger that they will remain detached from one another.
There are signs, too, that these digital public spaces are by no means free from infiltration by ‘agents of formal authority’. The FBI can already be found advising its agents how to befriend suspects on Facebook. One can only speculate as to how many registered users of Twitter are the creations of state security agencies and their private contractors. Just as the new social media create a target-rich environment for marketers and brand consultants, they can also be shaped covertly in ways that increase a sense of isolation, that misinform people about the levels of intelligence and goodwill to be found in the general population, and that forestall the emergence of public deliberation that leads to effective action.
As far back as the First World War the American state was looking at ways of controlling the town-hall meeting to secure support for intervention in Europe. Thousands of ‘three-minute men’, chosen for their local reputation, were taught to repeat the official line. The digital town-hall is no less vulnerable to state manipulation than its real-world predecessor.
The challenge is to find ways of ensuring that the discoveries and preferences of these new digital publics, those of existing real-world publics, and those of the new publics coming into existence through the medium of direct action, all connect with the field of publicity – with the sum of things that are widely known and discussed. Protest is part of that process – protest provides both a venue for conversations between equals and a medium to reach others.
But part of that process must include structural reform of the media to take into account the opportunities presented by new technology, the existing resources that could be used to deepen public deliberation (the libraries, above all), and the glaring deficiencies in the current system of news provision.
In Britain and the United States we have a media system overwhelmingly attuned to the needs of the mass society, in which a few seek to shape the thoughts and so shape actions of the rest of us. Their hold is weakening.
It must be broken. The establishment of a public society offers everyone whose ideas are publicly defensible their best hope of securing change.
[Since this post was first published in March 2011 it has been viewed 5,351 times. If you are a student and would like a better grade, you might want to read The Return of the Public, where I explore the difference between mass and public communications in greater depth.]