Andrew R. Schrock
Submission Deadline: November 15, 2016
Communication has a long and rich history of debating the relationship between publics and expertise. James Carey (1989) famously critiqued Walter Lippmann (1922) for an elitist reliance on expertise in the formation of public opinion. Carey preferred Dewey’s (1927) notion of “public,” deeming Lippmann’s stance elitist. Habermas’ public sphere similarly does not favor experts, and communication as a discipline has largely favored publics over expertise. However, Michael Schudson (2008) suggested that Carey’s framing of the Dewey-Lippmann “debate” favoring publics missed important reasons why expertise is vital to democracy. He argued that Lippman’s intent was that “experts were not to replace the public… rather experts were to provide an alternative source of knowledge and policy” (p. 10).
Technology imposes another level of complexity to this debate. By some readings, a need for technological literacies presents a challenge to public communication. Meritocratic or generation-based theories of “digital natives” and “geeks” seem to preclude the formation of broad-based publics (Prensky, 2001). Early concern about a divide of technological access has moved to focus on the unequal distribution of expertise and opportunities to gain it through acquisition of technical skills and media literacies (Jenkins et al., 2009). New forms of experts and expertise have emerged as particularly important to publics, even vital for their existence. Technological intermediaries, such as hackers, are increasingly important to translate and publicize technological issues of public importance (e.g. open data, digital privacy, surveillance). Networked publics on online platforms require expert maintenance work to exist, even when all members of the public need not be experts. The “horizontalist” movement Occupy developed and appropriated technologies to assist the public in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. Expertise played a vital role that did not preclude a public, but helped it flourish.
We suggest that expertise and publics have always been productively entangled rather than on opposing sides of a binary. This special issue examines the role of technological expertise in constituting publics, maintaining publics, increasing publics’ communicative capacities, influencing existing structures of cultural and governmental power, and connecting with issues of public concern. We ask a set of related questions: how does expertise contribute to the formation of publics and enabling of collective action? Conversely, when does the unequal distribution of expertise inhibit the constitution of publics? How does expertise create public goods? How does it mediate the societal distribution of power? What are the diverse ways expertise can be conceptualized? What is the relationship between technological expertise and other kinds of expertise, such as communicative or social? How does the line between “the public” and “expert” become crossed or blurred?