sean aylward smith on Thu, 4 Feb 1999 12:02:16 +0100 (CET)


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re: <nettime> "public space" online: AOL public forums


some comments about 'public space' online...

in his introduction to Amy Harmon's article about regimes of discipline at
AOL, Felix stated that:

>The article scratches an interesting problem. Whatever happens online
>takes place in somepne's private space, thus is not protected by civil
>rights that govern traditional public space ... no matter how many
>million subscribers AOL has, it cannot be public space ... The ensuing
>dynamics of the two types of spaces go in entirely opposite directions.
>Since no one owns public space, nobody is responsible for what happens
>there [except] those who make it happen. This [pushes responsibility
>onto] the individual. In private space, the owner of the space is
>responsible for what happens there. As a consequence, responsibility
>flows away from individuals to the owners.

One of the problems with the idea of 'public space' is that 'space' it
contains within it dual notions of locality and social relations: it is
metaphoric as well as corporeal. The best way (in English at least) of
describing this duality is by distinguishing between 'physical public
space' as 'the commons' and 'metaphoric public space' as 'the public
sphere'. The sad history of the term 'the commons' is as a residual
category that follows after the commodification of land through the
extension of property rights: 'the commons' is that which is currently not
realisable as capital but which may at some point be apporiable and
appropriated when it gains some realisable capital value. Examples of this
include the 'enclosure' movement in England of the 15-18th centuries (Frow
'The Commodity Form', Braudel 'Land and Money'); the private appropriation
of communal forests in India during the 'Green Revolution' (Shiva) and
Garrett Hardin's infamous defense of property rights as pre-eminent, 'The
Tragedy of the Commons'.

The 'public sphere' on the other hand, has always been metaphoric and
discursive, rather than a physical space. It has its origins, not in the
mythologised space of the greek agora, but in the coffeehouses, private
salons and 'table societies' of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, as
Jurgen Habermas describes in _Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit_. In these
physical spaces, all of which were privately owned, “private people came
together as a public” to engage the public authorities in debates over the
rules governing their societies (27). That is to say, the metaphoric space
of 'the public sphere' was from the beginning constituted in privately
owned spaces. Furthermore, this space was always striated according to the
preferences of the participants and owners, and this didn't change once
the 'public sphere' grew too large to be accomodated in any one physical
or temporal space: the newspapers and journals that came into being to
record and articulate this new 'public sphere' were from their very
inception, privately owned and controlled: in most cases actively owned by
political parties and used by them as ideological weapons in the debates
they were recording (59-67).

Indeed, it was not until the creation of the BBC in the UK in 1925? 1927?
that there was any part of the 'public sphere' that could be said to be a
commons, that is, publicly owned. And arguably, the BBC's creation had
more to do with extending the control of the state over the space of the
nation-state (in ways similar to other European governments of the era)
than to providing a forum in which the citizens of the state could air
their views.

And so there is basically no tradition of public ownership of the physical
spaces that make possible the metaphoric and discursive spaces of 'the
public sphere'. The correct model of public space is neither the commons
nor the agora, but Mrs. Miggen's Pie Shop. In this context, the privately
owned spaces provided by AOL, by other network providers, by educational
institutions (which even when state-owned, can't be described as
'publically-controlled') and piggie-backed off corporations for public
discussion are in direct lineage from, and perfectly good examples of,
public space. Arguments about 'the structural transformation' of the
public sphere that Habermas for one laments - in which the logic of
commodity exchange has subverted for its own ends the bulwark of democracy
that is the public sphere of rational discourse - are not merely
innaccurate but nostalgic and, in the words of Enzensberger, “defeatist”
and “defensive” (101). Such an account of the public sphere can offer no
more than impotent moral outrage that something trhat was never the case
in fact isn't the case.

This is not to suggest, even for a second, that online users, or anyone
else, should roll over and acquiese to whatever capricious demands AOL or
anyone else may make. But it is to point out that such a struggle, between
what is possible and what is desirable speech, is one of the structuring
features of the public sphere - that such struggles are in fact boundary
markers of the scope and possibility of some sort of 'publicness'. In
fact, I would suggest that the struggle that Amy Harmon described, between
the wishes of the participants and the wishes of the owners of the space
over the 'excess' of publicity - that which exceeds the wishes of and
reasons for the owners hosting the participants debate - is one of the
defining features of the public sphere. For if a 'public space' is indeed
going to be a public sphere in some sense rather than simply a promotional
feature for the owners of the space where it takes place - whether it is
AOL or the local pub where meetings take place - it must exceed the
constraints of the site owners in order to assert, in whatever limited
sense, the very publicness it proclaims. 

What online communications can do is remove this space of publicity from
the hands of the state nobility (cf. Bourdieu _Acts of Resistance_) of
politicians, newspaper pundits and columnists, talk show hosts, television
presenters and celebrities and redistribute it to a much wider section of
the population of wired societies (albeit a wider section that is itself
sturctured in very specific class, race and gendered ways). Furthermore,
the online world offers the possibility of this public space being not
some psuedo-democratic 'town-hall meeting' or referendum where a
constrained set of options is placed in front of an unwilling populace to
choose from, but a genuinely agonistic democratic space where arguments
between radically different factions, collectives and communities can take
place. Of course, such an agonistic, non-directed democracy is not nearly
as efficient in generating 'decisions' as 'town-hall meetings', talk-show
debates or focus groups, but then that didn't stop the public sphere of
the 17th and 18th century giving rise to the most powerful class in
recorded history, the bourgeoisie. Mind you, it's worth wondering, given
the structuring features of the online community, what sort of class the
virtual public sphere might be giving rise to....

sean
___________________
references:
Bourdieu, Pierre. _Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time_.
Cambridge: Polity P, 1998
Braudel, Fernand. _Civilisation and Capitalism, Vol. II: The Wheels of
Commerce_. London, William Collins Sons & Co, 1982.
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. _The Consciousness Industry_. New York: Seabury
Press, 1974.
Frow, John. _Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and
Postmodernity_. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.
Habermas, Jurgen. _The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An
Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society_. Cambridge: Polity P, 1989.
Trans. of _Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit_. Darmstadt: Hermann
Luchterhand Verlag, 1962.
Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science. Vol. 162 (1968):
1243-48.
Shiva, Vandana. _Staying alive : women, ecology, and development_. London:
Zed Books, 1989.

__________________________________________

[ so take a breath, take my hand, there's land ahoy ]


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