Towards a Portable Public Sphere: How Technology Created a Discursive Space in Czechoslovakia in 1968

Misha Mazzini Griffith

Advisor: Mills Kelly, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Dina M. Copelman, Marion F. Deshmukh

Merten Hall, #1203
July 17, 2017, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


This study examines the efforts to use communications technology to create a public sphere in two very different circumstances. The first instance was in socialist Czechoslovakia in January of 1968, when a group of reformers were given the leadership of an authoritarian government in an economic crisis. They instituted such reforms as freedom of expression to re-engage the population and revitalize the economy. The second instance was in August of that same year when military intervention stopped the reform agenda. In both situations, broadcast and consumer technology played crucial roles by engaging citizen participation in politics and the public space.            

Using a constructivist methodology, this study examined the technology, the users, the ideological aspirations, the political movements, and the institutional management of the broadcast media to better understand the context of the technology. It demonstrates that the personalized communication devices available in Czechoslovakia during the 1968 reform movement and the subsequent Soviet-led invasion played an important and understudied role in the creation of the successful but short-lived public sphere during the period commonly known as the “Prague Spring.” The compact and personalized nature of the technologies allowed users to repurpose the original intended functions of their equipment to develop a range of sophisticated, interwoven dialogues between the elites, content production personnel, and consumers of that content. The result was the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership’s ability to use communications technology to gain popular support for their pluralistic reforms in the first eight months of 1968. Following the Soviet-led invasion devised to put an end to those reforms, the same broadcast technologies and workers became the organizing arm of the captive government and were used to coordinate the non-violent resistance against the invasion. The situation comes full circle because the government and the media return to their pre-1968 configurations.  

Set in a brief time period that contained an established inventory of equipment, this study concludes that, through the process of democratic rationalization, the choices made were formed through social pressures and the individuals’ knowledge, aspirations, and skill. In both situations, the broadcast media facilitated a lively public space which was only abandoned under extreme duress.