A conference is a gathering of people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.” This may be true for those conferences which only deal with material and infrastructural development. But when internationally renowned scholars brainstorm together on the transformation of private and public lives and spaces in a conference, every moment there enlightens everyone. The Forum of Contemporary Theory (Baroda, India), together with Panjab University, organised such a scholarly gathering where “development” transformed from its trivial sense into individual epiphany.
This unison of scholars, titled “The Virtual Transformation of the Public Sphere”, was held at Hotel Parkview in Chandigarh, India from December 15 to18, 2010. I was representing Bangladesh as a participant in this conference with my research paper on visual voyeurism. Mashrur Shahid Hossain, Chairperson at the Department of English in Jahangirnagar University, also presented his paper on Internet Messenger. Therefore, the conference centered on the transformation of our discourses and identities in virtual sphere. The scholars examined whether our virtual world is a degeneration of public sphere or it is a marker of a more egalitarian and democratic public culture in the light of the significant transformation in digital technology and human communication that have taken place over the last few decades.
The rapid expansion of the internet, along with email communications, online forums, social “blogging” and social connectivity websites (like facebook, twitter and myspace) have transformed the ways in which individuals interact and communicate with each other in fundamental ways. The transformations have not only been drastic in terms of how “internet-connected” individuals organise the daily routines of their personal lives but it has also affected in many ways their own self-fashioning as private and public individuals. The rapid changes also meant fundamental structural changes in the institutions that have traditionally served as key elements of collective communication and deliberation. For example, for the increasing use of email and online advertisements, the postal services worldwide face a severe shortage of revenue. For online availability of news (often at no cost), many local and national newspapers found their advertising and subscription revenues dwindle often resulting in bankruptcy. In the meantime within a decade of its existence, “google” has become a commonly used verb, “friending” someone has become a competitive sport. If internet has become the foundation for a newly ordered public and commercial sphere (like online banking and shopping), we are turning cyborgs (that visionary theorists in the past prophesied) by being increasingly dependent on internet devices like Smartphones and IPhones.
Therefore, we observe, in the world of “internet-connected”, a “virtual” transformation of the public sphere which is more “real” than reality itself. The conference located the multiple sites of this “translocation” as well as the many inequities, challenges and silences. It focused on a range of issues: the technological transformation of human creativity, the academic transformation of scholarly practices through electronic texts, the transformation of “autobiography” through personal web pages and blogs. Or, to turn to a different discipline, the conference specified how have art historians and other scholars of visual culture reconceptualized some of the initial theories and methods of their field in the outbreak of new media technologies? And to what extent can digital technologies and the new media help foreground the centrality of the humanities and art to public culture and social life?
Hence, scholars argued on the limits of public/private division. They concentrated on the influence of visual texts on literature and art, the changing habits of reading through new media, the revised and modified concepts of “human” in virtual sphere, the social dynamics of “blogging”, the new nature of “imagined communities” on internet and the shaping of virtual identities by contemporary individuals. Moreover, the later part of the conference dealt with the ethical standpoints of new media. The discussants argued on questions such as: what are the potential strengths and drawbacks of new digital technologies in research lives of scholars? How can the new media help in the dissemination of the humanities and art in the world at large? Can the digital humanities “save” the humanities from their allegedly slipping hold on the public imagination?
Almost two hundred scholars from different countries attended the conference. There were thirteen sessions with more than one hundred papers. As I was roaming from one session to another, I realized that the scholars’ aim in considering the virtual transformation of the public sphere is neither to be uncritically celebratory nor to be unduly cynical. Rather, they are interested in concentrating on these changes and defining them in relation to issues of power, justice, privacy, identity, political deliberation, civic society and also aesthetics, consumption, and pleasure.
[This article was also published in Daily Sun on Academia page (January 17, 2011). The link: http://www.daily-sun.com/?view=details&archiev=yes&arch_date=17-01-2011&type=daily_sun_news&pub_no=100&cat_id=3&menu_id=18&news_type_id=1&index=1]