Publics and Digitals

Adam Greenfield’s keynote at Cognitive Cities prompted several thoughts about the nature of public space.

1. There is no public space online. There are expectations of public space by people using online services, but each service is very strictly controlled either by a company with a bottom line or by a (semi-)government agency that is difficult to make accountable.

2. Online is permeating the offline world. The built environment is getting digital. Our behaviours are increasingly controlled by systems and structures built out of information and code.

3. Through that mechanism the values that are inherent in online services (such as corporate control, chokeable infrastructures) impose themselves upon the offline world and upon the public space that we were accustomed to.

4. Public space came about through public discourse around behaviour, expectations, rights and justice in our environments and was codified in social practice and law. A similar codification is taking place in the digital realm, but now in code which is often arbitrarily drafted and rigidly applied.

5. Discourse on this subject is ill-informed and superficial both in policy makers, the public and in whatever remains of the fourth estate. Discussions are easily hijacked to ends that serve particular interests but not any overall good.

So how do we fix this trend? How do we inform people at scale? Your ideas welcome.

One thought on “Publics and Digitals”

  1. No public space online…never realized this before, but I guess the consequences go further than one wants. The essence of public space – I think- is that nobody owns it and the rules are democratically set and checked. In 2011-speak: nobody would own the data of your online behavior and can use it for other goals than the ones democratically agreed on, which is supported by public institutions like a legal system, public infrastructure, etc. Indeed, I don’t know any space online that has that…maybe the old usenet. In a way. Maybe the old DDS in Amsterdam, in a way.

    How and why to create that?

    How: poooh, not easy, but I think do-able….maybe through a co-operative body which is democratically governed by rules about which ‘netizins’ can vote, they pay ‘taxes’ to keep the infrastructure alive and connected with the rest of the net and…lots more. Questions like: who is a netizin, how to avoid a census-voting system are not easy to solve, but can be solved nevertheless.

    Why: Although my guts tell me it would be good if there is such a space, I can find only negative reasons to create one at first thought. I see only fear based (but very realistic) arguments like the misuse of data by companies as a reason to create such an undertaking as creating an online public space. It wasn’t there in the first place, like IRL public space, so the reason must be stronger than only fear based arguments….and I cannot find them yet; even though emotionally I’d want to.
    Next to that, is there a risk of a very empty public ‘plaza’, which is free, but boring, uninspiring and therefore irrelevant? Yes, there is. I have some hope artists can fill in this gap, creating ‘online nature’ to enjoy and places that inspire, but…it feels a bit forced to do so. Will online public space be some form of Online-utopia?

    I can think of one example with a use (although it is also fear based): a mail cooperative. Because mail providers have to obey invasive anti-privacy laws, but individuals don’t have to, a ‘public’ co-operative mail provider would fall outside current laws and will thus create a safe place for your mail hosting.

    Anybody else can think of some more examples?

    Jeroen Nas

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