Bringing the digital to life: how can new media reinvigorate the material public sphere?
I read with interest Rob Bagchi’s prediction – and let’s face it, as a sports journalist he’s pretty familiar with predictions – that the closing down of the British Library’s newspaper depository in Colindale in 2012 may signal the demise of the UK’s statistics-enamoured sports fan community. As he put it at the end of his revealing mini-ethnography of this particular grouping of, it seems predominantly if not entirely entirely, men:
When Colindale closes in 2012 I fear that another refuge for the trivia-enchanted sports fan will not take its place, somewhere that you could always wear your metaphorical anorak with pride. The internet provides things we could never have envisaged but the library’s sense of community may be lost forever.
What struck me about this closing comment was that while the internet has been touted as an overwhelmingly empowering medium, through which we can build anew a lively and inclusive public sphere, in this instance the digitisation of information may result in the disbanding of an, albeit fragile, active and engaged community. What also struck me was the significant role played by Rob’s sensually-experienced descriptions of the library’s visitors – e.g. ‘the man who reeked of Dettol’ or ‘the hare-eyed chap with the roll-up permanently wedged behind his ear’ – in illuminating the milieu to which he referred.
If we take such physical co-presence and the immediate (as opposed to mediated) experience of difference as an important part of a healthy, democratic society (esp. see the work of Iris Marion Young on ‘the politics of difference’), then the implications of such displacement of face-to-face communities by wired ones may be serious.
In particular, I would argue that a particular question is raised by these implications, namely how might we actively re-shape the potential posed by ever-increasing digital connectivity to take mutual social activity out of place into a reinvigoration of embodied public life that draws on the internet’s potential to draw people together around interests, concerns, ideas etc?
Thankfully, there are already some unmissable indications that the digital revolution doesn’t have to sign the end of communities of co-presence, but rather can generate communities of this kind that were unimaginable previously. I am thinking of flash mobs specifically here and the numerous transformative appropriations of space and time that this situationist ‘movement’ has achieved. Notably, flash mob happenings have been able to bring together previously unknown others to act collectively to an unprecedented degree. Rather than lament the envisaged dissipation of the Colindale sports fan community, then, can we be more hopeful that the digitisation of sports statistics may provide a shared resource around which a wider community may develop? Does the transfer of information into bits and bytes necessarily mean that we’ll no longer come together to share in its exploration and analysis, or does it just mean that we might have to be more actively engaged in ensuring that this information is shared, pored over and put to use in ways that still physically bring people together?