1 Introduction

While the private or domestic sphere is the realm of family life, friends, and personal matters, the public sphere is where the expression and discussion of ideas occur regarding common concerns and collective social interests. The term “public sphere” is often used in the singular form, but “in large-scale, differentiated late modern societies, not least in the context of nation states permeated by globalization, we have to understand the public sphere as constituting many different spaces” (Dahlgren, 2005, 148). That is why we prefer to use the plural form here—public spheres—to recognize that there are countless forms of fragmentation and contestation and both off- and online public spheres. And within the global context there is a collection of public spheres that can vary from deeply democratic to authoritarian (cf. Dukalskis, 2017).

Public spheres can arise when people express their personal experiences of particular problems and solutions in public. This may allow others to listen and recognize those experiences as a public issue, and to develop a shared understanding of the problems and solutions, together with a collective will to address them. In these public sphere processes, media of all kinds play a central role in the circulation of information and the interactions and communication between people. This chapter reflects on the relationship between public spheres and technology assessment (TA), which addresses the relationship between technological and social change. In particular, we consider the connection between TA and public spheres from a global perspective, that is, from the context of globalization. The globalization of science and technology, among other things, impacts the theory and practice of TA, but there has been little reflection on the significance of this.

We begin that reflection by stating that TA wants to make the social significance of technological change publicly visible and open to discussion. TA assumes that groups of people can be affected both positively and negatively by scientific and technological developments. These (positive and negative) consequences can lead to certain groups in society becoming politicized and thus becoming a public that creates a public sphere. According to Dewey (2016, 69), “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.”Footnote 1 This is where the “all-affected” principle—also known as the “congruence,” “symmetry,” or even “democratic” principle—comes into play, which generally says that “all who are affected by a decision should have a right to participate into making it” (Dahl, 1970, 64; quoted in Lagerspetz, 2015, 6).

Based on this thought, TA should critically relate to the public sphere. For example, which people, interests, visions and issues do or do not receive attention? In particular, TA’s role is to make publics which are emerging from the influence of science and technology visible in the public debate and give them a voice. When TA takes globalization seriously, the global perspective provides an additional critical perspective on the public sphere, especially the national public sphere. The Global TA network, almost by definition, wants to take globalization seriously and therefore starts from the awareness that it is important to take into account an international context when performing a TA activity. In view of the all-affected principle and the fact that science and technology and their social consequences are global phenomena, TA should therefore, in principle, take into account the groups of people that are affected worldwide, rather than only in the country where the TA is exercised or the countries where TA is institutionalized.

The above first reflection already indicates the relevance of the global perspective on public spheres and TA. This will be further elaborated in this chapter. We do this by first examining the relationship from a national context, because both TA and academic thinking about public spheres are mainly approached from the point of view of national political decision-making. Given our interest in the connections between public spheres and TA, we focus on those public spheres that deal with the societal significance of technology, or the nexus between science, technology and society (STS), which we call “STS-like” public spheres. We then reflect on public spheres in a context of globalization and describe how TA institutes, networks, and activities are organized beyond national borders. Informed by that, we look at the link between public spheres and TA in a global context and finish by sketching a blueprint for the future of global TA. But first we start by characterizing the public sphere concept by means of six dimensions. This characterization is needed in order to interpret the academic discussion about the public spheres and their relationship with TA in both the national and global contexts.

2 Six Characteristics of Public Spheres

The term public sphere is a contested (Tully, 2012), fuzzy concept. To make it more precise, we will characterize public spheres by means of six characteristics: four information and communication processes, the central role of media, and the public sphere as a space between the private sphere and other societal domains such as science and technology, economics, and politics.

Habermas (1989) used the German term “Öffentlichkeit,” which was translated in English as “public sphere.” “Öffentlichkeit” refers to “publicity” in the sense that what happens in the public sphere is to a certain extent visible, legible, accessible, negotiable, shareable, debatable, and actionable to and by people. The term “public sphere” refers to the fact that publics, i.e., groups of people, create that sphere. The public sphere represents a multiplicity of publics, bringing different experiences, opinions, types of knowledge, value orientations, and capabilities to identify and articulate public problems and propose solutions, and to take action. This phenomenon, in which the human experience of what is happening in the world is collectively interpreted, can be made more tangible by distinguishing four processes in which the formation of publics can take place around collective issues, shared public understanding, public will, and action. It is these activities that constitute the public sphere.

Public expression and publishing of personal experiences

As Dewey (2016) clarified, problems, for example related to technologies or policies, first have to be experienced or perceived by people who suffer from it now, or see people around them suffering, or fear suffering in the future. Something similar applies to solutions to problems, where their feasibility and desirability must first be tested and experienced on a small scale. Such private experiences are not yet public issues. For that to happen, personal experiences must be expressed—words and images must be given to it—and made public so that they become visible for others.

Public listening and recognition

Publicly voicing problems and solutions gives fellow human beings the opportunity to listen to those outpourings. Informed in this way, other people may be able to recognize the particular problems and solutions, by putting themselves in the shoes of others and seeing the consequences of a certain development from their perspective. Human empathy has the potential to connect with similar people and people close to us, but also with citizens, non-citizens (like migrants), and non-humans (like animals and trees) who are far removed from us in terms of physical distance, time, and social context (Krznaric, 2010). If others recognize the problems and solutions in question, a public—a community of listening (Han, 2018)—may be formed around the relevant issues by means of the exchange of information and ideas, and through deliberation.

Shared public understanding

This is the start of a phase in which public opinion formation may take place. If a group of people can find one another and become attuned with regard to the perception of problems and solutions, a shared recognition of problems that should be resolved in a particular way can arise (Raile et al., 2018). According to Rosanvallon (2008, 307), this also “involves the production of a language adequate to our social experience, a language capable of describing social life and therefore of influencing it.”

Public will-formation and civic public action

Such an alignment of the understanding of problems and solutions can lead to a collective commitment to address the situation in question. The term “public will-formation” is often used to describe this process. According to Raile et al., (2014, 105), public will becomes meaningful when “a social system has a shared recognition of a particular problem and resolves to address the situation in a particular way through sustained collective action.” When we talk about collective action, it usually refers to activities of the state in the public interest. In this case, however, it specifically concerns activities of ordinary citizens to address certain concerns about their collective lives. Public action thus also has a civic aspect to it (cf. Spink, 2019). For example, Drèze and Sen (1991, vii) used public action to mean: “not merely the activities of the state, but also social actions taken by members of the public—both ‘collaborative’ (through civic cooperation) and ‘adversarial’ (through social criticism and political opposition).”

Civic public action is any form of organized action carried out by a group of people in order to address their needs and/or improve a certain problematic situation and achieve a common objective. These actions can be social, technical, economic, or political. Peaceful protests, awareness-raising, and grassroots campaigns are all forms of political action. Other forms of collective public action are, for example, a community of farmers agreeing upon how to best ration water from a common source, or forms of citizen science, like citizens measuring the severity of air pollution from industry or car traffic in their neighborhood. A social movement is a loosely organized but sustained “form of collective action that articulates a social conflict and ultimately aims at transforming a social order” (Thörn, 2007, 900). To be successful, social movements must be skilled in information politics, i.e., “the ability to quickly and credibly generate politically usable information and move it to where it has the most impact” (Keck & Sikkink, 1998: 16).

Central role of the media

Both traditional and social media play a central role in all of the above-described information and communication processes. This dynamic is shaped by the political economy of media and enabled and constrained by information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the control of and access to them. The technological infrastructure of the public sphere plays an important role, because it strongly influences how people perceive and experience the world. While at the beginning of the nineteenth century people’s experiences were largely limited to what was happening locally, and news from other parts of the world often did not arrive until weeks later, nowadays people can often follow what is happening in almost every other place in the world in real time via satellite and Internet connections. Due to this intertwining of our private lives and the mix of traditional and social media, our personal life worlds have increasingly become sites of globalization (Volkmer, 2014).

The public sphere as an in-between space

The public sphere is positioned as a part of our society that fulfills a linking function, an intermediary structure or role between the life world of people and more institutionalized societal domains, such as the private sector or economic sphere, the scientific and technological domain, and politics. This last characteristic is referred to as the “inbetween-ness” of the public sphere, or the public sphere as an in-between space, a nexus between the unorganized private world of people and the organized world of public and private institutions.

Starting with Habermas, scientific discussion of the public sphere has traditionally focused on the role the public sphere plays between people’s private lives and the national political system in democracies. This therefore involves an inbetween-ness between “the nation state” and “the people,” in the capacity of citizens of the respective nation. This concerns citizens indicating what their social wishes are and expressing their confidence about a particular political course. However, it also involves citizens critically monitoring and questioning existing policies, including organizing social counter forces to prevent the implementation of particular political decisions.

From the perspective of globalization, this dominant view of the public sphere as the nexus between the people who are governed and the people who—or maybe better the institutions that—govern, immediately raises a number of essential questions (cf. Volkmer, 2014). For example, how can such a global public sphere arise and function in a situation where in the legal sense there is no such thing as a world citizen, and in the political sense there is no such thing as a world parliament (representing the entire world population with powers to frame international laws for the entire world), or world government (as a common political authority for all of humanity)?

Before dealing with such thorny questions, let us first consider the dominant model of the national public sphere as the space between the life world of citizens and the national democratic political system. We also look at the relationship between TA and the public sphere, as the political and public role of TA is often discussed at national level, in the way we have characterized the public sphere in this section. And given our interest in the connection between public spheres and TA, we focus on those public spheres that address the societal significance of technology, or the nexus between science, technology and society (STS); so-called STS-like public spheres.

3 STS-Like Public Spheres and TA in a National Political Context

Above, we distinguished between collective action by ordinary citizens and public authorities. In the academic literature, by far the most attention is paid to the way in which public recognition of certain issues, and subsequent public opinion-forming and will-formation can eventually lead to political action by governmental organizations. In order to achieve this, it is important that a sufficient set of decision-makers become “committed to supporting a commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution” (Post et al., 2010, 659).

The basic premise of any political system—whether democratic or authoritarian (cf. Dukalskis, 2017)—is that the people who govern must somehow find their legitimacy with the people they govern. Rosanvallon (2008, 328) speaks of the continuous “crisis of political representation,” since there is a perpetual gap between the governors and the governed. This requires constant interaction and communication between the state and the people in order to reconcile societal needs and public policy. To examine the functioning of democratic political practice, Habermas used the concept of the public sphere to describe and reflect upon how this interaction between the “people” (i.e., “society”) and the “state” takes place and should take place. In essence, this is about enabling collective understanding of problems and solutions, collective will-formation, and transforming the public will into political will.

Habermas (1989) became famous with an historical study which situated the emergence in the eighteenth century of the bourgeois public sphere in Germany, Great Britain, and France. Informed by newspapers, citizens gathered mostly in pubs, coffeehouses, and literary salons to discuss politics and society. According to Kellner (2000, 3) “for the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice.” In this way, which is at the crux of a democratic public sphere, precisely by forming a public sphere, citizens changed from those who are governed by the authorities to citizens who demanded a say in the issues and the way they were governed. This shows that people can also affect the form, role and function of the public sphere, and its link with the political system. In relation to this, a distinction can be made between engagement in and with public spheres, where the stake of the latter is the democratic transformation of the public sphere itself (Tully, 2012, 171).

An influential normative framework regarding the public sphere in democracies is the Habermasian principle of an ideal speech situation. Habermas argues that to arrive at an adequate picture of the realities of society, opinion- and will-formation within the public sphere should be based on the free exchange of arguments and rational-critical discourse. He named six conditions for such a “power-free” ideal speech situation (Habermas, 2001). First, every citizen should have equal opportunities to participate in the public debate on a subject relevant to that citizen. Secondly, participants in the audience sphere must be truthful and say what they mean. The third requirement relates to the autonomy of citizens and suggests that communication must be free of external and internal coercion. The fourth relates to the public character of the deliberations that take place in the public sphere. The fifth condition concerns the rejection of hierarchy between participants and demands equal communicative rights for all, so that each can participate on an equal footing. The final condition requires participants to have an intention to reach agreement, to be oriented toward consent, and requires that “participants reciprocally impute an orientation to communicative agreement on one another, this … acceptance can only occur jointly or collectively” (Habermas, 2001, 44).

3.1 Three Factors Influencing the Autonomy of the Public Sphere

The above normative ideal of the public sphere has never been fully achieved in practice. We can look at the first condition concerning equal access to the public sphere. Habermas’ (1989) historical study situated the emergence in the eighteenth century of the bourgeois public sphere in Germany, Great Britain, and France. Informed by newspapers, citizens gathered mostly in pubs, coffeehouses, and literary salons to discuss politics and society. However, that bourgeois public sphere was accessible mainly to educated, propertied men, who conducted a discourse prejudicial to the interests of those excluded, like workers and women (Calhoun, 1992, 3). Here, we focus on the third criterion regarding the autonomy of the public sphere, and specifically how its functioning is influenced by political rulers, science and technology, and the media.

Political rulers—the problem of agenda-setting

It is often implicitly assumed that public issues are put on the political agenda via the public sphere. The excluded groups mentioned above, for example, created their own publics—or better counter-publics—and alternative public spheres in order to politically claim their democratic voting rights and other rights. As a result, many important social issues, like women’s rights and environmental protection, which previously only played a role in alternative public spheres on the margins of civil society, have been placed on the political agenda (Habermas, 1996). However, issues are also put on the agenda via other routes.

Many political issues do not originate in the public sphere, but in politics. Governments can choose to submit these issues to the critical public sphere in order to arrive at more adequate and legitimate problem perceptions and solutions. In some cases, the interaction between the public and public authorities is regulated by law. For example, since 1998 the United Nations Aarhus Convention grants the public rights regarding access to information, public participation, and access to justice in governmental decision-making processes on matters concerning the local, national, and transboundary environment. However, citizens are not always involved in a transparent and fair manner. Snider (2010) sees fake public participation as a widespread global phenomenon.

The manipulative orchestration of public opinion by political movements and leaders may undermine the role of the public sphere in producing a legible world for citizens, and articulating the real needs of society. Archetypical anti-democratic populist leaders, like Perón in Argentina and Chávez in Venezuela, even aimed to manufacture the will of the people (Bartley, 2017). And once in power they broke down independent forms of civic organization, ranging from parliaments, governmental agencies, and trades unions, to political parties. In this way, flawed democracies can turn into authoritarian regimes (cf. The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015). The “authoritarian public sphere is characterized by the state’s efforts to establish its foundations, delineate its boundaries, and monitor its content” (Dukalskis, 2017, 4). The authoritarian state manipulates the public sphere by positive legitimation (i.e., crafting and disseminating messages legitimating the regime) and negative repression, including blocking, censoring, or undermining viewpoints that might threaten the state’s narrative (ibid.). The fact that the information environment is imbued with aspects of reality prioritized by the state makes it difficult for citizens to (individually and collectively) form an accurate picture of social reality. Dukalskis (2017, 4) shows that despite this challenge, sometimes ordinary citizens do manage to maneuver within the tightly controlled public discourse by taking advantage of autonomous spaces or networks to articulate and discuss their ideas and even find ways to seriously oppose the authoritarian political regime.

In the Internet age, countries may also have and use capabilities to influence the information that reaches the populations of other countries. For example, the Russian government “actively undermines the rule of law and free democracy both in the domestic political processes and the political processes of other states” (Hamer et al., 2019, 53). Russia uses espionage and disinformation to undermine the democratic process and to destabilize a foreign society. The country is suspected of actively spreading disinformation on various occasions, from undermining the American presidential elections in 2016, to influencing the American mid-term elections in 2018, and targeting the Yellow Vests movement in France.

Media—the (technical) mediation of the public sphere

Above, we mentioned the central role that traditional and social media play in the public sphere. Habermas considered the press to be the most important catalyst of the bourgeois public sphere of the eighteenth century (cf. Peters, 1993). In the twentieth century, besides newspapers, radio and television became influential means to broadcast information. Habermas was highly critical of the role of such mass media. In the early 1960s, he stated that in modern European nations mass media had become “the gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere” (Habermas, 1989, 185). He argued that the acquisition of the control of mass media—such as newspapers, radio, and TV—by private owners and their relationship with the political class had made “manipulative publicity” common and had led to the so-called refeudalization of the public sphere. Commercialization of the news media also led to people being approached as consumers, and little attention was paid to critical discourse and raising political awareness among citizens. As a result, Calhoun argues that, “With the loss of a notion of a general interest and the rise of a consumption orientation, the members of the public lost their common ground” (Calhoun, 1992: 25).

We now live in the Internet age. In the early days of the Internet, the popular utopian vision was that the Internet could serve as a global public sphere with the potential to reshape democracy. It was thought that in contrast to the passive consumption of mass media, the Internet would provide a new well-informed public sphere, where citizens could form active Internet communities, with room for criticism, arguments, and unmanipulated power-free discussion among all kinds of people and views. In the meantime, various scholars worry that phenomena such as filter bubbles and digital echo-chambers cause isolated self-referential public spheres that increase ideological segregation. Flaxman et al. (2016) found that social networks and search engines both increase the mean ideological distance between individuals as well as increase an individual’s exposure to material from their less-preferred side of the political spectrum. Also, much attention has been paid to the ways in which the use of the Internet and social media in combination with big tech dominance can put pressure on democracy. This discussion is fueled by the fact that the public debate has turned into a revenue model by large social media companies, like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Moreover, the Internet has been flooded with “fake news,” or more specifically: mis-information (incorrect information), mal-information (information based on reality, used to harm a person, organization or country), and disinformation (dissemination of misleading information with the aim of harming public debate and democratic processes) (cf. Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017). For example, Myanmar military officials misused Facebook to set up a systematic hate-speech campaign to target a Muslim Rohingya minority, which has led to murder, rape, and forced migration (cf. Stevenson, 2018).

Science and technology—knowledge as a resource and problem of modern public spheres

In our technological culture, identifying and addressing public issues is often highly dependent on scientific knowledge and technological expertise, capabilities, and instruments. Science and technology play at least three roles (cf. Beck, 1992, 163). First, the industrial use of science and technologies creates social benefits and risks. Second, science and technology provide means to recognize and measure physical risks, but also indicate and articulate social and ethical issues related to technologies. And finally, science and technology can be used to deal with risks in the best possible way. With his book The public and its problems (1927), Dewey (2016) was one of the first to draw attention to the role of scientific and technological expertise in decision-making and the citizen’s dependence on the knowledge of experts. Dewey identified science and technology as a main source of public problems in modern societies and thus as drivers of public debates and the emergence of new publics. As stated above, citizens depend on the state to address their needs effectively. Often, however, existing state institutions are incapable of addressing these new public needs and are hostile to those needs because they have been organized to serve the sometimes-conflicting interests of other publics. As Dewey (2016, 80–81) puts it, “The new public which is generated remains long inchoate, unorganized, because it cannot use inherited political agencies. The latter, if elaborate and well institutionalized, obstruct the organization of the new public. … To form itself, the public has to break existing political forms.” Therefore, according to Dewey, publics must first develop outside the incumbent institutions of the state, until they are powerful enough to function as a counterweight to publics that are entrenched via the state and change the institutions of that state. “This, for Dewey, is the essence of democracy’s radical character.” (Rogers, 2016, 42).

At the same time, science and technology development is a challenge for publics due to the complexity of the issues at stake. The difficulties in capturing the complexity of problems and identifying possible options for action can stymie the effective articulation of problems and thus the emergence of active public debates: “The ramification of the issues before the public is so wide and intricate, the technical matters involved so specialized, the details are so many and so shifting, that the public cannot for any length of time identify and hold itself” (Dewey, 2016: 166). With the new emerging roles of experts and laypeople, it becomes decisive for citizens to fulfill their democratic role to be provided with reliable knowledge in order to be able “to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns” (Dewey, 2016, 225). It is at this intersection of expertise, public opinion-forming, and policymaking where institutions such as (parliamentary) TA organizations are situated, and through which they define their roles (see below and Hennen, 2021).

3.2 STS-Like Public Spheres and TA

Since TA deals with the relationship between technological change and social problems, it has a strong public and political dimension (van Est & Brom, 2012). The practice of TA thus recognizes the important role that science and technology play in society and in political decision-making. Ganzevles et al. (2014) model (parliamentary) TA as an activity at the interplay between society (including citizens and civil society organizations), politics (including parliament and government), and science and technology. TA thus functions as a mediator among the actors and their knowledge claims in these spheres. So, interestingly, STS-like public spheres and TA practices populate the same in-between spaces.

Related to this, it is important to recall that TA owes its existence to the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of a public sphere that was critical of science and technology and the way politics dealt with it. Important new public issues included environmental pollution, car safety, nuclear energy, and the impact of information technology on employment. Societal criticism was that politics and policy failed to deal with the negative effects of technological change in a timely and adequate manner. And there was a social call for the democratization of science and technology and related political decision-making. One of the political responses in various Western countries was the establishment of parliamentary TA organizations. Parliamentary TA was first institutionalized in the United States in 1972 with the founding of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) as part of the American Congress. Inspired by this event, in the 1980s, parliamentary TA took root in various European countries, starting with OPECTS in France, which was established in 1983 by law “to inform Parliament of the consequences of the choice of scientific and technological options, in particular, so as to enable it to make enlightened decisions.”Footnote 2

TA is often defined as “a scientific, interactive, and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology” (Bütschi et al., 2004, 14). Given the intermediary role of TA in the triangle between society, politics, and science and society, TA can thus focus on studying these domains and their interactions, informing the players in those domains and stimulating their engagement in the debate about the social significance of science and technology. As a result, we can describe the relationship between TA and STS-like public spheres (and also with politics and science and technology) along three dimensions, namely from the perspective of studying, informing, and engaging (cf. Hennen, 2021).

First, STS-like public spheres are objects of study for TA. This makes much sense, since public controversies surrounding science and technology can be seen as informal forms of TA that in many cases “provide partly conflicting assessments of new technologies or of the impacts of actual or proposed projects, that are further articulated and consolidated in the course of a controversy. Thus, informal technology assessment occurs.” (Rip, 1986, 350). So, by studying the positions and discussions in the public sphere, TA tries to gain insight into the way in which citizens, stakeholders, and experts perceive the social significance of science and technology.

The classic role of parliamentary TA is to inform parliaments (representatives of the people) about the state of public debate. But parliamentary TA may also be tasked with informing the general public. In such a case, the public sphere is regarded as the addressee of TA, based on the idea that insights from TA studies can contribute to the quality of the public debate about science, technology, and society.

In line with this lies the third dimension, in which engaging society and thus stimulating the public sphere is seen as an explicit task for a TA organization. This is the realm of participatory TA, which deals with the interface between the (political) decision-making arena and society (van Est & Brom, 2012). Participatory TA intellectually connects to the Habermasian model of discourse ethics (Dalton-Brown, 2015, 109), and in general to a deliberative model of democracy, in which it is considered important to confront actors with the political views of other actors. The aim of participatory TA is to broaden, and thus enrich, the political and public debate around the social aspects of science and technology. This mode of TA organizes the involvement of experts, stakeholders, and citizens to identify and evaluate the societal impact of technological change. A large toolbox of participatory methods has been developed for this purpose, including citizens’ panels, scenario workshops, and consensus conferences (Joss & Bellucci, 2002; Slocum-Bradley, 2003).

A question that arose in the context of public controversies surrounding biotechnology in the 1990s is when should citizens and societal actors be involved in the development of science and technology? In the field of nanotechnology, it was feared that this development could also lead to a great deal of public controversy. This gave rise to the idea that civil society organizations and the general public should be involved in the development of nanotechnology at an early stage. In this way, the notion of “upstream public engagement” entered the existing discourse on public participation (cf. Wilsdon & Willis, 2004). This created a window of opportunity in the United States and Europe to organize social participation not only around technology that was already on the market, but also in science, and decisions about the R&D agenda. Public engagement is thus not placed here between the public sphere and politics, but between the public sphere, and science and technology.

4 Public Spheres in a Context of Globalization

In the previous section, we discussed public spheres and their relationship with TA in the context of the political sphere of the nation state. However, the nation state and its politics are part of a bigger world. Since each country depends on other countries—politically, economically, environmentally, socio-culturally, and also with regard to science and technology—interdependence defines the state of the world (see Hennen and van Est, this volume). From that perspective, globalization refers to “a trend of increasing transnational flows and increasing thick networks of interdependence.” (Keohane, 2002, 15). This raises the question of how we can interpret the relationship between the public spheres and TA in a context of globalization.

First, we will look at the public sphere in the context of globalization. We show that the globalized media landscape provides tools for people around the globe to make local issues visible at a global level. Then, we argue, on the basis of the political European Community, that there is not yet a real transnational European political space or public sphere, let alone a global one. At the same time, there is a so-called internal globalization or cosmopolitanization of the identity and perception of (in particular young) people all over the world. This condition implies that for successful action, people and states must always take into account and make use of the opportunities that so-called cosmopolitanized action spaces offer. We then describe two examples of cosmopolitanized public spheres for collective action.

Visualized global media landscape

Originally, Habermas discussed public spheres mainly in the context of modern democratic European nation states, territorially bounded political community, national economy, national media, and linguistic and cultural homogeneity (Fraser, 2007). A quick reflection on these elements shows that globalization has radically changed the context in which public opinion may form and lead to action. We now live in a highly networked global-knowledge economy, in a multicultural society (partly as a result of centuries of enslavement and decades of colonial, labor and asylum migration). At the start of 2021, there were almost 4.7 billion active Internet users worldwide, some 60% of the global populationFootnote 3 with a similar number of TV viewers. The widespread use of television and Internet has created a visualized global media landscape, where local or personal issues can become national or even global concerns.

Increased means for global exposure

We can safely say that this media landscape has greatly increased the possibilities for many people to publicize their personal experiences with particular problems and solutions worldwide, accompanied by transparency about what is happening in the world (the first requirement for creating public spheres). Think of Wikileaks, and famous whistleblowers in the field of IT, like Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed numerous American global surveillance programs, or Christopher Wylie, whose revelations in 2018 prompted the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Another interesting example is the online campaign called Ushahidi (“testimony” in Swahili), which was launched by a group of concerned Kenyans (in and outside of Kenya) to raise awareness about the violence that was spreading the country after fraudulent elections took place at the end of 2007. This crisis-mapping tool was incorporated into Google Maps and enabled the crowdsourcing of testimonies of ordinary people, who could share what they saw and perceived almost in real time through SMS, tweets, Facebook messages, mobile camera photos, Skype chat logs, and voice recordings. The originator of the idea for such a platform, Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan female lawyer in South Africa, stated: “the idea behind crowdsourcing is that with enough volume, a ‘truth’ emerges that diminishes any false reports” (Okolloh, 2009, p). At the time, this reporting of violence was a new form of public engagement of citizens in Kenya and the Kenyan transnational diaspora (Goldstein & Rotich, 2008).

No generic pan-European or global public sphere

Citizens can thus obtain information about what is happening around the world and make it visible via traditional and social media. But in what way does this transparency also lead to collective understanding, collective public action, and perhaps also political action? Let us first look at the European Union, because a transnational European public sphere still seems to fit well with the Habermasian model (for an overview of the discussion on the problems of a European public sphere see Hennen, 2020). While there are European citizens who have freedom of expression, the right to vote, and the possibility to start a European citizens’ initiative, there is also a European political sovereign, embodied by the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Council which includes the heads of government of the member countries. The opinion of EU law professor Alberto Alemanno is quite sobering: “We don’t yet have a European politics – there’s no real pan-European public opinion, no transnational political debate or dialogue on the issues that affect our common interests as Europeans – unemployment, the environment, migration, data protection. But as the need increases, it’s starting to come.” (quoted in Henley, 2019). Mak, a historian (2019, 152), agrees with this analysis and states (subtly referring to Habermas) that “the dreamed European coffee house, where a permanent public street debate takes place, only slowly got off the ground.”

All transnational political bodies, including the European Union, face the problem of institutionally restricted options to directly refer and relate to a specific constituency. This causes problems in legitimizing its policies, as well as hampering the emergence of a transnational public sphere to which it can relate. In order to improve this situation, a democratization of transnational political institutions is required, alongside the development of an active transnational civil society and a felt transnational citizenship. As regards the latter, there are indications that together with the globalization of political problems and issues, a cosmopolitan perspective and identity of publics is emerging, which the technical options provided by the Internet support (see Hennen and van Est, this volume).

Internal globalization of the public sphere

One signal that this process of Europeanization of the political and public sphere is underway is the recent emergence of truly transnational, pan-European political parties, such as Volt. In addition, many young people, fueled by global issues such as migration, climate change, and security, and socialized in the sphere of the network society, are forming a cosmopolitan identity (Volkmer, 2014). A study among 14- to 17-year-olds in mid-sized cities in nine countries (Australia, Germany, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Trinidad & Tobago) shows that this group “collectively share the engagement in social media (Facebook), participates through a transnational angle in transnational events, and engages collectively in concerns of a globalized nature, human rights, the environment, … military conflicts and war” (ibid., 183–184). About half of these youngsters perceive themselves as citizens of the world, and half as citizens of their country, while a majority is interested in information about the world (ibid., 185). As a result, Volkmer (2014, 184) positions this new generation “between the lifeworld ‘locality’ and the globalized public.”

So we see that globalization leads to a reflexive process where (young) people start to think and act, taking into account the position of themselves and their country within a transnational and/or global context. Beck (2005, 143) speaks of “the ‘internal globalization’ or ‘cosmopolitanization’ of nation state societies from within,” and of cosmopolitan realism, which in order to be successful forces people and countries to make strategic use of “cosmopolitanized spaces for action” (Beck, 2016). Below we briefly discuss two examples of cosmopolitanized public spheres for collective action: a pre-Internet and a post-Internet example. One example concerns the historical struggle against apartheid in South Africa, where activists purposefully built incrementally a public sphere with global scope in order to increase foreign pressure for change on the national political regime. The second example concerns the contemporary formation of a global public sphere that includes, among other things, a diverse global assemblage of climate activists who exert political pressure at both the national and global political levels.

Anti-apartheid movement—building a global counter-public Footnote 4

The anti-apartheid movement was increasingly globally active from around 1960 (the Sharpeville massacre occurred on March 21, 1961) to 1994, when apartheid was formally abolished in South Africa (Thörn, 2007). The movement intentionally contributed to that political regime shift by prompting disinvestments by global corporations and stimulating nation states and supranational organizations, such as the United Nations, European Economic Community (EEC), and Organisation of African Unity (OAU), to boycott South Africa. Besides South Africa, the movement took organizational shape in, among others, the United Kingdom. Its long history shows that it took decades to build a global anti-apartheid counter-public and that informal contacts and networks between anti-apartheid activists within South Africa and in exile, and activists in other countries played a central role. The national, international, and transnational dimensions of this social movement dominated its global aspect (ibid., 911).

The anti-apartheid movement employed two interrelated information and communication strategies, before the Internet age: (1) influencing and achieving visibility in the established media to communicate their message to the public and (2) developing alternative media and information networks with a global reach in order to create an independent, “alternative public sphere that would make it possible to address publics directly, thus freeing the movement from any dependence on global media industries” (ibid., 906). For the second approach, archives of well-researched information material and photographs were built up, and news bulletins, magazines, films, and videos about the apartheid regime and resistance to it were produced and distributed to members and sold publicly. These products created an important base for attracting established media. The International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) played a central role in collecting and producing information material and made it easily accessible for other anti-apartheid organizations, as well as to journalists and a global public. Connected to the global media revolution, cultural events became crucial means to attract global media attention to the movement during the 1980s. Most important were the Nelson Mandela Tribute concerts in 1988 and 1990 that filled the Wembley stadium in London and were broadcast globally by the BBC.

Influencing national and global decision-making on climate change

At the international and global level, there is not always a decision-making body through and upon which the public sphere can exert political influence. However, such a visible decision-making platform does exist in the field of climate policy. The Conference of Parties (COP) is the highest decision-making body of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention (UNFCCC), consisting of world leaders from 189 nations. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol—which operationalizes the UNFCCC by committing countries to limit and reduce greenhouse gases emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets—was adopted during COP3 and entered into force in 2005. Since 2005, civil society organizations have collaborated worldwide to influence decisions regarding the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Actions have taken place at country level all over the globe, as well as wherever a COP-meeting took place.

The First Meeting of Parties (MOP1) to the Kyoto Protocol was held in conjunction with COP11 in 2005, in Montreal, Canada. This was the reason for environmental organizations to begin organizing a Global Day of Climate Action; peaceful demonstrations in many countries around the world, to influence the delegates to honor the commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol.Footnote 5 In 2015, these protests were given new impetus by the contribution of young climate activists. On the first day of the Paris climate summit (COP21), a worldwide Climate Strike was organized by students in over 100 countries, in which over 50,000 people participated. In 2018, this global youth movement was given impetus by the political actions of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, who, in the run-up to the Swedish general elections on 9 September, started protesting every day during school hours for better climate policy in front of the Swedish parliament. Her slogan “Fridays For Future” gained worldwide attention and inspired school students across the globe, leading to various Global Climate Strikes. For example, in relation to the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York on 23 September 2019, several million students participated in climate strikes across 150 countries.Footnote 6

A kaleidoscopic image

We might say that many countries have a generic national public sphere that is the result of many decades, if not centuries, of institution-formation, in the sense of, among other things, the national education system, political system, and media landscape. There is no such thing as a generic public sphere on a European scale, let alone on a global scale, although this may be developing very slowly. Diverse formative elements that have developed in recent decades include a global economy, a global (youth) culture, and a global visualized media landscape. The latter offers numerous possibilities for making local issues visible on a global scale, and for making global issues visible locally, as well as to comment on and discuss these. As a result, young people (in particular) increasingly see themselves as national and global citizens, although from a political-legal perspective there is as yet no such thing as a global citizen. Globalization is thus internalized in their thinking and also in the national public sphere. There is still a large gap between awareness-building and common understanding of certain global issues, and collective action to influence political decision-making at national and international levels. But we have showed two examples where this has succeeded.

Archiving of events, evidence, and statements and connecting to the global cultural public sphere via, e.g., pop concerts played an important role in the success of the anti-apartheid movement. And in recent years, teens have played an important role in the global climate movement. Both examples show a complex interaction between local, national, international, transnational, and global dimensions of the public sphere. In relation to this and in order to influence political decision-making, the public sphere relates in many ways to different levels of government, again from the local and national to the international and global level, whereby the messages are also aimed at multinationals. The dimensions of the multi-level public sphere surrounding a particular issue thus mirror the multi-level governance of the issue in question. The political success of such complex-layered globalized public spheres is still largely based on personal connections within and across countries. Although the youth-organized global climate strike movement shows that conveying a global message nowadays is relatively easier than in the days of the anti-apartheid movement, achieving political and social change still takes a lot of time and energy, and the slow, tiresome building of institutions (Olesen, 2005).

5 TA Beyond National Borders

Above, we reflected on public spheres in a globalized context. In this section, we look at the organization of TA and its activities beyond national borders. In the final section, we reflect on the relationship between S&T-like public spheres and TA in a context of globalization. When thinking about TA in America’s twenty-first century, Sclove (2010, 37f) identified two organizational routes. The first “Congressional option” is where a TA organization is directly linked to Congress, or in general a particular political decision-making body, which we will call the “Decision-Making Body option.” According to Sclove (2010), a second option would be to establish an “expert-and-participatory TA capability by connecting an appropriate set of independent, non-partisan, and non-profit organizations into a nation-wide network” (ibid. 38), the so-called Institutional Network option. Both routes are used to organize both expert-based and participatory TA capabilities at an international level (Table 1). We will look at Europe first, before discussing the TA situation at a global level.

Table 1 Some examples of how expert-based and participatory TA are organized at European and global political level

5.1 European Level

The classic role for (parliamentary) TA of informing political decision-making bodies is also organized at the EU level. STOA, the TA office of the European Parliament, is an example at central European political and administrative level. In addition to this Decision-Making Body option, the Institutional Network option is also used. Since 1990, international cooperation has taken place within European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA), a network of national TA institutions specialized in advising parliamentary bodies both in, and partially outside, Europe. The EPTA network has a light organizational structure, and each year its members produce jointly an EPTA report which provides an up-to-date international overview of policies linked to a current TA topic.

This Institutional Network option has been used several times to organize participatory TA at European and global level. The first transnational participatory TA project was Meeting of Minds, the European Citizens’ Deliberation on Brain Science, which aimed to rectify the lack of public debate on brain research in Europe (Rauws, 2010). The two-year pilot project was led by a panel of 126 randomly selected citizens from nine countries. A partner consortium of TA bodies, science museums, academic institutions, and public foundations launched this initiative in 2005 with the financial support of the European Commission and the King Baudouin Foundation. The participating citizens discussed matters in their own national panels, but also gathered together in two meetings in Brussels. At the end of the second international meeting in January 2006, the citizens’ report was presented to the European Parliament. The panel’s results have also been presented and disseminated at individual country levels.

5.2 Transnational and Global Level

TA is also organized at a global level on the basis of the Decision-Making Body option (Ladikas and Stamm, this volume). Part of the work of the IPCC also fits this option. The IPCC serves as the core scientific advisory board delivering evidence-based climate policy recommendations based on global scientific data to international climate negotiations. A key element of the advice from the IPCC is to assess the potential societal impacts of mitigation technologies, which is at the heart of TA (Ashworth and Clarke, this volume). The work of the IPCC also greatly influences the public debate in many countries around the world.

Considering the Institutional Network option, there has been a Global TA network since 2018. This network now consists of 28 non-profit institutions from around the world, working together in the area of science and technology, to promote responsible and sustainable research and innovation to tackle global grand challenges. The development of this book is the first joint TA-related activity, which aims to better understand the idea of global TA, contemporary practices, and its desired future. The big challenge for the Global TA network is to find organizations in developing countries with experience in the field of TA, as TA is much less common in non-OECD countries, while the need for TA is certainly no less.

The Institutional Network option has also been deployed to organize participatory TA on a global scale. The World Wide Views on Global Warming (WWViews) project represents a globe-encompassing participatory TA exercise (Bedsted & Klüver, 2009). WWViews enabled citizens from all over the world to define and communicate their positions on issues central to the UN Climate Change negotiations (COP15), in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. The project was coordinated by the Danish Board of Technology (DBT) and implemented by a global alliance of individuals and institutions, including governmental and non-governmental organizations, parliamentary TA organizations, and universities. On 26 September 2009, the various partners hosted one-day face-to-face deliberations in 38 nations, including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Russia, the United States, and various European and African nations. Each deliberation included about 90 people, so that about 4000 people worldwide were involved.

In the field of participatory TA, it is not easy to find suitable partners in developing countries. However, there are some examples of participatory TA events. For example, in 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests undertook a large-scale public consultation for the first time ever in India, concerning the commercial release of the first GM food crop in that country. Ely et al. (2014) list some examples of participatory TA activities, such as citizen’s juries, that have taken place in particular in the field of agricultural biotechnology in Brazil, Mali, and Zimbabwe, and reflect on three international participatory TA projects:

  • The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) cost some $15 million and was funded by the World Bank, UNDP, FAO, and other institutions. Its aim was to provide a global consensus for investing in agricultural science and technology, setting priorities for both national and global organizations. The four-year TA project started in 2003 was global in scope and resulted in five regional reports and one global report. It involved some 900 stakeholders across 110 countries from multiple institutions in public, civil, and private sectors.

  • The second TA project was sponsored by the British Royal Society and organized by the British think-tank DEMOS and Lancaster University, to explore the role of new nanotechnologies in clean water provision, through stakeholder events in Nepal, Peru, and Zimbabwe. The Royal Society wanted to look beyond the perspective of Western societies and take account of how people in developing societies might respond to nanotech-developments and their impacts.

  • Finally, in 2008 the UK Research Council sponsored a TA project to identify maize-based farming strategies in Kenya as a means to respond to climate change. This participatory TA project included discussions with farmers, plant breeders, policy-makers, extension workers, and executives in commercial seed companies.

6 STS-Like Public Spheres and TA in a Context of Globalization

In Sect. 3, we saw that globalization affects local and national levels and even impacts personal identity and opinion-formation. The public sphere is becoming globalized, especially through the globalization of the national public sphere. This means that the international expansion of public spheres and the internal globalization of national public spheres are taking place simultaneously. However, the latter process seems to be developing more quickly as it is embedded in existing national public, media, and political institutions. This is often not the case internationally, as illustrated in the field of TA in Sect. 4, where we described the weakness of the institutionalization of TA in developing countries and at the international level. This final section looks at the relationship between STS-like public spheres and TA, in a context of globalization.

In Sect. 1, we introduced the all-affected principle, which in the TA context means that all who are affected by science and technology should have a right to participate in decision-making about it. Based on the all-affected principle, globalization sets additional demands on the theory and practice of TA, both at the national level and beyond. Since science and technology and their social consequences are global phenomena, TA should, according to the all-affected principle, take into account the groups of people that are affected worldwide, and not only in the country where TA is organized. Below, we reflect on how globalization, including science and technology and the public sphere, challenges TA and its connection to the public sphere on both a national and international level. Analogous to Sect. 2, we use the tripartite division between TA activities that study the public sphere, inform the public sphere, and stimulate and involve the public sphere (cf. Hennen, 2021).

6.1 National TA as a Site of Globalization

TA is institutionalized in many OECD countries, but not in many developing countries. So there is literally still a world to win. Here, we focus on countries with TA capacity. Like the nation state and national public spheres, national TA has become a site of globalization. Based on the all-affected principle, globalization forces national TA, which also values inclusivity, to broaden its field of view with regard to public spheres (cf. Ely et al., 2014).

Central questions for TA activities are which scientific and technological developments to address and which groups affected by those developments will be included in a TA study. The globalization perspective calls for special attention for groups that are often not included, such as cultural minorities or new immigrant citizens, young people with an internalized global perspective, and groups in other countries, especially developing countries, who experience the consequences of new scientific and technological developments. Minorities can be much affected by developments such as ethnic profiling and AI, and the robotization of warehouses, but may lack the time, language skills, and organizational capacity to organize themselves into an active public and make themselves heard in the public debate. It is perhaps even more difficult to make visible and audible those groups from other countries who are affected by, for example, the testing of medicines, the dumping of electronic waste, or IVF through international surrogacy. A category that is easily left out are those migrants who do not have civilian status in any country. This means that the globalization perspective should also be taken into account when selecting topics for TA studies—such as the role of technology in migration policy (Dijstelbloem & Meijer, 2009).

Paying attention to the groups identified above also has consequences for informing the public sphere and the various audiences within it. Informing them may require translation of results into specific languages, and the use of interpreters during debates. Translations into English in particular ensure that the results can be disseminated worldwide.

With regard to the stimulation of S&T-like public spheres through participatory TA activities, the choice of topics and participating groups also plays a role. Above, we saw that the Royal Society choose a global perspective on nanotechnology and organized stakeholder discussions in Nepal, Peru, and Zimbabwe. Reflecting on the transnationalization of the public sphere, Couldry wonders how Polish minorities can be given a more prominent place in the British public debate and states: “Don’t the voices of migrant workers in Britain, and indeed their families abroad that depend on their remitted income, need to be heard more in British media than at present?” (Couldry, 2014, 55). Modern media makes it possible to give people from all over the world a voice in a national debate. When involving the viewpoints of people internationally, cooperation with TA practitioners in other countries can be sought. In this way, the TA capacity in such countries can also be strengthened. This brings us to the topic of TA and public spheres beyond national borders.

6.2 TA and Public Spheres Beyond National Borders

A reflection on TA and public spheres beyond national borders should start with two observations. First, there is as yet no such thing as a European, let alone global, political, and public sphere. From a global perspective, there is a patchwork from democratic to authoritarian public spheres. At the same time, we have shown two examples—the anti-apartheid and climate change movements—in which civil society actors succeeded through sustained effort in building public spheres of global scope that have had cultural and political influence at national and global levels. Both movements simultaneously constructed national counter-publics and a global counter-public, which both interacted and also acted autonomously (cf. Thörn, 2007, 912). Moreover, these movements democratically transformed public spheres.

The second remark concerns the global state of TA. Overall, the institutionalization and financing of TA in many developing countries and at an international level are still relatively weak. At the same time, we outlined a wide range of expert-based and participatory TA activities carried out by TA organizations and networks at both European and global level. Table 1 therefore shows what is possible in principle in the field of international TA and thus outlines a kind of blueprint for the future of global TA. That blueprint consists of a mix of Decision-Making Body and Institutional Network options to organize expert-based and participatory TA at an international level. Unfortunately, the Decision-Making body route is currently not used to organize participatory TA activities.

So what are the possibilities for TA at an international level to research, inform, and stimulate S&T-like public spheres? The need and potential for TA to do such things beyond national borders are strong, but are used far too little, because the lack of political vision and capacity means that both institutionalization and funding lag behind. As the history of the anti-apartheid and climate change movements shows, building a public sphere with global reach can take decades. The same goes for European and global TA. The first forms of expert-based TA according to the Decision-Making Body option at European level (see STOA) and global level, including both democratic and authoritarian states (see IPCC), arose in the second half of the 1980s. Expert-based TA according to the Institutional Network route was set up in Europe in 1990 (EPTA) and was recently established on a worldwide scale in 2018 (Global TA network). Participatory TA was organized at the European level between 2005 and 2007 (Meeting of Minds) and at the global level between 2008 and 2009 (World Wide Views on Global Warming). All such international TA activities can in principle be expanded and should be expanded from the perspective of globalization of science and technology and its consequences. According to the blueprint of Table 1, we can think of expanding the Global TA network and its funding so that the network can carry out international expert-based and participatory TA activities. Or, by analogy with the IPCC, we can think of setting up an Intergovernmental Panel on Artificial Intelligence or Synthetic Biology. So although much is desirable and possible, a lack of political vision will often stand between dream and action.