In 1956 the American sociologist C. Wright Mills set out to describe the difference between a ‘community of publics’ and a ‘mass society’. It was a difference that derived from the forms of communication found in each. Egalitarian communications that connects to the conduct of the state fosters a public culture and effective democracy; centralised and concentrated media power underpins the enigmatic and unaccountable rule of elites.
A new ebook from Commonwealth, The Public and the Mass revives Mills’ account and explores its relevance in the age of social media and mass surveillance. We can already see the outlines of a new communications structure, in which the corporate sector and the state ensure that the majority are denied the means to deliberate on the basis of the best available information. Technology that could reinvigorate popular participation is being made safe for domination by manipulation.
This is not inevitable. The data leaks from Manning, Snowden and others have alerted us to the need for root and branch reform of the media as a preliminary to a revived democratic culture. So far the emphasis has been on restoring online privacy. But, as Mills pointed out sixty years ago, there is more to a public system of communications than privacy.
The debate about media reform has been delayed long enough. If we want to live in democracies we need to change the way we communicate with one another and with the state. Mills’ public/mass distinction remains an excellent place to start.