The public sphere is crucial to the intellectual, though its fragile structure is undergoing an accelerated process of decay. The nostalgic question, ‘Where have all the intellectuals gone?’ misses the point. You can’t have committed intellectuals if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to.
Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter. One could argue that social media are not an extension of the public sphere but the antithesis of it. Habermas doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of things getting better: “Perhaps with time we will learn to manage the social networks in a civilized manner.” But he doesn’t seem especially hopeful: “I am too old to judge the cultural impulse that the new media is giving birth to. But it annoys me that it’s the first media revolution in the history of mankind to first and foremost serve economic as opposed to cultural ends.”
The really interesting point here is that you can’t have genuine public intellectuals if you don’t have a sizable class of people who are able to read — who can understand arguments and assess them shrewdly and fairly. But anyone has been on social media knows how rare such ability is, how regularly (almost unerringly) people respond to what others have written without having, in any meaningful sense, read it.
So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?