Dan Hind, The Return of the Public

In The Return of the Public, Dan Hind articulates a persuasive argument for the reform of publicity and information systems in order to enable any further radical changes to economic, political, and societal structures. Our current commanding economic institutions and hierarchies are constantly sustained and bolstered by an information system which serves to deter and buffer any widespread criticism; a marketplace of ideas dominated by discourses that favour the wealthy and are subject to manipulation by powerful interests. Whereas economic, political and social crises, such as the 2008 economic crash and US declaration of war in Iraq, could be an opportunity to reflect and revise our current state and structures, our mainstream knowledge and communication systems efficaciously deter any opportunity for criticism and change. An increasing pandemonium of dizzying inequality and deepening social and environmental problems have gone widely unchallenged due to inadequate communication and reporting.

The ability to alter the global order remains steadfastly restricted to a secluded, secretive network of power mongers, impossible to infiltrate. While the media constantly tell us that we are individually autonomous and collectively sovereign, it is that same media that have the power to ensure that we are neither. Hind proposes the prospect of altering our regimes of truth by reconstructing the institutional bodies and networks through which we generate and share information, which will in turn ‘set ourselves free, since only a world more fully and more widely understood can be transformed.’ The Return of the Public offers us insight into a path that could lead towards developing an accurate general understanding of our surroundings, generating active participation in societal and global proceedings in order to challenge untruth – ultimately aiming to provide the means to recognise and defeat illegitimate power. Hind’s detailed dissection of the relationship between the governing powers and the nations masses, evolving through the rise of democratic and republican governments in the UK and the US which claim to purport a system of control by the whole population perfectly frame his subsequent manifesto. Hind claims that the public participation necessary to sufficiently engage in politics is being obstructed by an inadequate, elitist information system that is driven by ulterior motives. Democratic debate simply can not exist without a reconfiguration of our mainstream media.

Hind first contextualises his superb analysis within a wealth of historical context that aims to detangle modern notions of the public and the private. Beginning with the emergence of the Romanic ‘public,’ Hind skilfully weaves his way through the complex intricacies of the rise (and fall) of the public. The well known conjunction between expansion of the printing press in the 1500’s, and the successive industrialisation of the process centuries later in the 1800’s, with an increase in public political participation paves the way for us to consider what repercussions a transformed information system in 21st century might have. Hind cites Habermas’ observation that the growing literary culture and shared life of the city provided a space for a conscientious group to form with ‘shared values and a shared willingness to comment on matters of common concern.’ Just as the birth of coffee house culture instigated a wave of active public opinion centuries ago, we can employ this framework to historicise how we consider what locations might act as a breeding ground for a contemporary imagined community. Where city life and the industrialisation of the press enabled private individuals to form a shared political publics during urbanisation, what could this mean for digital populations of the modern day? How do densely populated online locations inspire a critical public culture? How do we define and locate shared experiences and values to activate into communities when although individuals are vastly spread across global territories they remain united through online forums? Where historically mass produced publication has inspired liberal movements, do we now find ourselves in an era where information is so superfluous and profligate it seems to have the counter effect of mobilising bodies of individuals into an active political public?

The Return of the Public alludes to several notable sociological concepts, effectively deploying examples to bring these traditional theories to contemporary life with a vision to implement practical changes and embark on a new era of participatory politics. In particular, The Return of the Public seems to me to be contemporising traditional Marxist concepts. The focus on disproportionate access to information as a core hinderance to efficiently engaging as a publically political citizen is indicative not only of the Marxist attention to inequality as stemming from relative ownership of capital (where information is a modern day form of capital), but also implies a state of alienation in which we are estranged from reaching our potential not only as individuals but also as part of a social class. Hind claims that ‘a sovereign public requires a new constitution of information.’ With regards to the allusion of information as contemporary capital (which certainly rings true in our so-called Information Age), Hind’s call to redistribute access to information is reminiscent of traditional Marxist aims to equalise society through a restructuring of individuals relationship to economic capital: ending exclusive elite domination of societal resources. Unequal access to the means of production (in this case, well-sourced, trustworthy information) blocks individuals from succeeding beyond their means, serving to maintain the status quo and obstructing citizens from engaging properly in politics. If we do not properly understand the makeup of our surroundings, we have no chance of challenging them. This leads us to Hind’s implication that this enduring elitism of who owns information gives rise to a general sense of alienation amongst the population from one’s environment. Hind maintains that while we are deprived from acting as a true public due to limited access to curating, sharing and consuming correct knowledge,  ‘we are not, in one sense, even fully human.’ Further, we are increasingly alienated by our preoccupations of commercial competition which we are bombarded with, which largely deprive us of the leisure and resources to think independently. Consequently, we neither have the resources nor the disposition to form our own opinions, and must rely on others to influence them.

An interpretation of cultural hegemony can also be found in Hind’s work, through his suggestion that the ruling elite can maintain the existing social order through controlling the population’s’ opinions. As indicated before, the modern ‘public’ acquire habits of thought and beliefs manufactured for their consumption, thus those who control the media can perpetuate chosen ideologies and cement mainstream sentiment. One strength – so to say – of the capitalist democracy we operate within lies in the fact that the population exist under the blissful illusion we have the freedom of choice, when in reality, our choices are carefully managed options: we exist only which the discourses provided, and are largely only free to choose between a selection of ideas, beliefs and messages hand fed to us. With reference to Algernon Sidney’s words, Hind projects that while ‘a slave might have a benevolent master, might in practice be able to live as though he were free, but he is still a slave and is such prone to all the vices or servility.’ While we remain in a state of dependence, we are slaves. Just as our state of economic dependence has the effect of keeping the population in line by creating and maintaining a constant fear of sudden dispossession, so does our dependence on elitist bodies for providing us information on political and social affairs, both past and present. We either buy in, or face being left in the dark.

Offering a glimmer of hope, The Rise of the Public outlines how we need to begin actively envisaging ourselves as a public, focusing on our shared connections. Political power can be gained through sufficient communication and knowledge. With secure access to the means of subsistence, individuals can start to act fearlessly as citizens, and defend their independence. After all, the current order can only last as long as we remain unable to constitute ourselves as publics. Hind aims to promote a vision of a society where an effective information system could create the conditions for public participation and engagement in our global environment. If we develop a system where we have increased access to and control over the supply of honest and credible information, we have much more chance of then turning to tackle the inequalities and injustices that we are not faced with in the current climate. Hind’s presage is based on the conjecture that taking steps to make people feel more politically empowered and informed as a shared community through better access to information would then arm them with the tools to challenge further disparities both locally and globally, working towards a more equal and humanistic world order.

For interesting insight into the expansion of media networks and its impact on democracy and the public, take a look at Jamie Bartlett’s exploration of Silicon Valley and the result it’s mission to connect people is causing an age of political turbulence.

 

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