It's a good time to reimagine the idea of a public
This research note is part of the After Westphalia series.
A couple of years ago, a fun blockchain experiment called satoshis.place was launched. It’s still live, but not very active. Satoshi’s place is an online graffiti wall powered by bitcoin micropayments. You modify the wall manually or programmatically, and pay in proportion to the number of pixels you modify. And anyone can pay to overwrite your artistry of course. Here is a snapshot of the state of the wall a couple of years ago or so ago, when my friend Artem Litvonovich put the ribbonfarm (my blog) masthead and other wholesome things on the site, and briefly defended the canvas against barbarism and vandalism:
Artem eventually gave up. You can watch the timelapse of what happened through the peak of the frenzy here. It would appear the most-moneyed griefers won. The current state of the experiment looks like this:
Satoshi’s place was obviously inspired by the r/place experiment on reddit the previous year (see this excellent commentary on sudoscript). The 2005 million-dollar homepage experiment also had a similar artistic logic. The framing there was as a pure advertising billboard, and access to pixels was centrally gated by the artist, but still, it was crowd-sourced raster art.
Let's add to this mise en place Conway's Game of Life (RIP — he passed away from Covid19 on April 11), which is pure rule-based bots competing over pixels.
These four examples of what we might call raster public spaces — Satoshi’s Place, r/place, the million dollar homepage, and the game of life — hold up an interesting mirror to regular public spaces, ranging from twitter and physical town squares to more complex modern public-space media, including a few new ones that are emerging right now.
But raster public spaces are probably about as simple as it gets, so let's start there to reverse engineer the basic elements of public spaces, and work our way up.
Elements of Public Spaces
The contrast between satoshis.place and r/place is interesting. On r/place, several collaborative efforts emerged that seemed to carve out their own spaces on the canvas to pursue clear ends. There were wars, but they were well-defined ones with clear battlefronts. And several times, for brief periods, interesting full-canvas-scale artistic effects were achieved.
Satoshis.place on the other hand, was closer to a Hobbesian war of all against all. In the time-lapse video, you can occasionally spot people pursuing and defending a particular end, but what defeats them is the anarchic vandalism rather than coherent competing tribes with their own artistic goals.
You might say that r/place was a more curated, coherent and aesthetically harmonious walled garden of a public space, while satoshis.place is a more accurate public reflection of the society it is embedded in. The difference between the two is the difference between laissez-faire authoritarian and libertarian public spaces.
I suppose this is due to the more open and individualistic structure induced by the combination of payment-based gatekeeping, and the existence of an API, in the case of satoshis.place. It is harder to form tribes and pursue coherent artistic aims when anyone with money and scripting skill can compete with larger collectives acting manually (iirc, the r/place experiment did not allow bots, and imposed a delay between pixel-update actions by individuals, so you had to collaborate to achieve anything of significance).
The million-dollar homepage of course, had no significant coordination problems to solve, since a central authority was assigning pixels. It was a fully authoritarian public space on the other end of the pixellated political universe from satoshis.place. It is not surprising that it was built around advertising, rather than public expression.
And to round out the set, the Game of Life has all the pixels following the same simple rules. It is a complex, but orderly pixellated public place, peopled by dumb emergent automata. It produces phenomena that invite anthropomorphic projection, but basically comprises only zombies. Despite the name, there is no sentient life in that simulation.
There are more advanced automata-style simulations that try to model various political thought experiments with greater fidelity, but that's irrelevant for us (but as an aside, Stephen Wolfram’s recent work on hypergraph based automata is very intriguing and might have applicability to social graph system simulations too).
The four examples of raster publics suggest that the design of public spaces involves at least the following key elements:
Gatekeeping: Using time, power, money, or other asymmetrically distributed resources
Recursive visibility: You must see and be seen, be seen to see, see that you are seen...
Flow/traffic management: Since the set of people in a public space is not constant
Coordination: Not getting in each other's way in the use of the space
Conflict: Contesting parts of the space
Cooperation: Pooling resources towards the same end
Memory/history: Preservation/reversion/restoration of previous states
Automation/leverage: Using bots/scripts to have leveraged effects on the space
Sybil-resistance: You pay to play in some uniquely identifiable way
Consequentiality: Things that happen in the space affect reality somehow
You can see all these elements at work in any kind of more complex public space. Take for example, a town square.
Physical Public Spaces
In the prototypical physical public space, the kind that has largely been emptied out by pandemic conditions, all ten elements identified above are present, and in non-degenerate form. There is more of course, but at least these ten elements, which seem to constitute a minimum-viable public, are present.
There is gatekeeping for starters. You have to have money to dress appropriately for public appearance, and time to spend seeing/being seen in public.
There is of course, seeing and being seen, recursively. Right now, mask requirements are causing much anguish to beautiful people.
There are traffic flow problems: not bumping into each other (now with additional 6-foot social distancing constraints)
There are coordination problems: buskers not interfering with each other's music-making.
There is conflict between competing rallies/protests (now with spacing constraints).
There is cooperation involved in everything from hosting a parade to putting on a flashmob performance.
There is automation -- loudspeakers, and images being projected on walls. Mostly in service of advertising rather than the functioning of the public per se. Display advertising revenue, incidentally, has tanked thanks to the pandemic.
There is sybil resistance: You appear as yourself, an identifiable human, and it is hard to bring a horde of forged people with you. Hard but not impossible. A politician can bus in large groups of supporters from the provinces for a rally in the capital city. Fake protests can be engineered. Perhaps even fake people in the future (like drivers on highways using mannequins to get around HOV-lane rules).
And of course, political action can unfold in a town square. That has historically been their raison d’etre.
Right now, none of the affordances of physical public spaces are properly available. There are of course, heartwarming rituals playing out around the world, where people come out to balconies and make noise, sing, or otherwise try to compose a ghost of a pubic life for themselves, to remember this period by.
Here in Los Angeles for instance, there is currently a ritual of 8PM noise-making from balconies. I am often out for a walk at that time, and it is a sad, rather pathetic display. One that is, nevertheless, going to become part of history and memory.
But a much more powerful renewal of the notion of public spaces is of course unfolding online.
Digital Public Spaces
Digital public spaces have tended, historically, to mimic physical ones approximately in the same way computer-based text media have used the document metaphor and mimicked paper-based media.
Take Twitter, the prototypical digital public space. I won’t exhaustively catalogue my ten elements with reference to twitter, but it obviously fits all the criteria.
You pick an avatar, handle, and tagline. You invest time. You follow conventions (and the platform enforces some) to not interfere with each other's conversations. There are flame wars. There are cooperatively driven trends and hashtags. Memory and history are assumed perfect by default, modulo deletions, administrative actions like shadowbanning, and whatever distortions the feed and search algorithms create. And of course there are bots, look around, but also some weak sybil resistance through mechanisms such as the bluecheck certification or just a unique, signature style of tweeting.
And there are consequences of course, to tweets. Tweets can get you canceled, or elected President.
But Twitter (and lesser publics such as Reddit and 4chan) are already starting to show their age. There is significant energy behind many newer things.
There is Fortnite for instance. I haven’t been there yet.
Then there is Zoom repurposed as a public medium, (and to a lesser extent, all video conferencing apps designed for closed groups and communities are being used in more public ways right now).
If you squint a bit, TikTok is sort of a public space too, with the soul of a public busking sidewalk, the heart of a domestic space, and the structure of a messaging app. That makes it quite unlike Instagram, which is more a warren of personal spaces for charismatic personalities to hold court.
And of course, there are various options in VR. I recently bought myself an Oculus Quest as a pandemic treat and have had one VR meeting so far. If it weren’t for the fact that the Quest is out of stock and rather expensive on the secondary market, this would have been the debut party for mainstream VR.
There is also renewed interested in public spaces defined by audio rather than textual or visual media, thanks to Zoom exhaustion. For a recent effort I’ve been involved in (the Yak Collective, which I’ll talk about in a future newsletter), we chose Discord, an audio-based public designed for gaming. Our first public town hall today was a fascinating experience in managing a large public conversation purely as an audio experience. We found ourselves naturally porting metaphors like a queue of people lining up to use a Q&A microphone.
Innovations are coming. Several people have invited me to join an “audio Twitter” app that’s currently in beta, called Clubhouse (I’ll check it out at some point, once I get past the Oculus Quest and Discord learning curves — I’m suffering a bit of adoption exhaustion). There’s a thing called Online Town I’ll be checking out this afternoon after I send out this newsletter.
The takeaway from this inventory of existing and emerging public-space technologies for is that public spaces are complex distributed computers made up of crowds and technology. Actually, all social spaces are, but the full richness is realized in public spaces. They are the most complex and powerful computers of this kind. John Conway was right to name his automaton universe the game of life. Public spaces are games of life.
There’s a lot more that can be said about the material-computational construction aspects of public spaces. John Palmer has been doing a lot of excellent thinking about spatial interfaces and software. And Drew Austin serves up a reliable weekly dose of insight into these matters. Prominent architects are already thinking about Quarantine Urbanism.
But let’s talk about the people who make up publics.
Public as in People
Spaces become social spaces only when they are peopled. Sarah Perry wrote an excellent essay a few years ago on the essence of peopling that you should check out for some subtler intuitions on peopling.
The question I am interested in is: What sort of peopling elevates an arbitrary social space — a broader notion that includes many more intimate spaces — into a public space?
A public as in a space is occupied by a public as in a people. What can we say about the people who constitute a public?
You could say that a public as in people is precisely those people who appear in public, in public spaces, under the conditions defined by the design of that particular public space. But if you stop to think for a moment, you realize this definition has all sorts of problems, starting with who constructed the space, and why, and what their relationship is to the people in it. Even worse, in a certain sense, everybody is part of the public, but clearly not everybody is in public at any given time.
A better approach is to start with how people come to see themselves as a public.
Corey Robin has this interesting idea that intellectuals create publics. It is an ambitious claim, given the conventional understanding of intellectuals as people who merely create in public. Is it correct? A physics analogy helps here. Think of Robin’s definition as relativistic sociopolitics as opposed to classical.
In classical physics, matter is distinct from space and time. Matter moves around in space and time, meekly following Newton's laws, much as pixels meekly follow Conway’s laws in the game of life.
In relativistic physics on the other hand, as J. A. Wheeler observed, "matter tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells matter how to move."
The definition reminds me of the Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin quote, "There go my people. I must find out where they're going so I can lead them."
Mutatis mutandis, in relativistic sociology, intellectuals tell publics how to move, publics tell intellectuals how to curve. Technology can mediate this dance, but the idea of a public is fundamentally a function of relationships between two kinds of people: elites and masses.
The idea isn't that new. Something like it informs José Ortega y Gasset's distinction between noble and common men, as well as the Straussian distinction between great men and everybody else.
Elites and Masses
The idea of a public as in people, then, presupposes three kinds of people making up society, at least in a Western sense:
Intellectuals who traffic in original thought, driving the marketplace of ideas through the equivalent of idea IPOs: ideas that get labeled as -isms.
Free individuals, independent investors in the idea economy, so to speak, who in principle think for themselves, and decide, through free-thinking debate and scholarship, which -isms are great, and which ones not.
Masses, whose patterns of unthinking affiliation and aggregation are driven by the doings and talkings of the first two classes.
The basic dynamic is that free individuals deploy their resources to turn their favorite intellectual ideas into maps that carve up the sociopolitical territory represented by the masses.
In theory, intellectuals and free individuals together constitute the elites who tell the masses, how to move, and are told by the latter in return how to curve.
The idea of an Overton window is an interesting spatial metaphor for a public here: it is a constraint on what the elites can say or do that exists as a consequence of the trajectories forced upon them by the masses, which in turn are a consequence of a spatial design crafted by the elites in the first place. You could say that any public space is an Overton window. One that changes its bounds over time, and shapes the trajectories of discourses within it.
Here, elites is a value-neutral term, denoting people who occupy certain structural roles in society. A bunny trail you may want to explore is Pareto's idea (based on Machiavelli) that there are two kinds of elites that cyclically displace each other from public spaces: lion elites and fox elites. Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong-Un are lion elites. Merkel, Macron, and Trudeau are fox elites.
Similarly, masses refers not to any particular aggregate construct like class, caste, or race, but to people who can be shaped into predictable aggregates through the actions of elites. The particular way social reality is carved up into large aggregate masses is a function of prevailing political ideologies as well as natural social geography, just as geographic reality is carved up by both roads and mountains.
How do elites and masses relate to publics?
Visible and Invisible Publics
You may have noticed a semantic problem. Confusingly, we use the term public in two different ways that mean diametrically opposed things. One usage refers to the elites, while the other usage refers to the masses.
The first, more classical usage, is to use public to mean visible elites in togas arguing and debating in some consequential public forum. This is the public life of public figures as opposed to the private lives of everybody. This is seen as opposed to unseen. In Hannah Arendt's sense, it comprises people with the resources to “appear in public” as free individuals in public life in some form, as unique individuals. This is a sense derived from the Greek polis.
Arendt’s notional genealogy of the public isn’t the only one possible. I just learned of a different one in an excellent book I’m reading right now, Barbara Tuchman’s In a Distant Mirror (about the 14th century and the Black Death). Apparently, free cities and towns, with the freedoms associated with public spaces, emerged in part because the nobility, bankrupted by military adventuring, sold public rights and charters to townsfolk in exchange for money.
This is a vastly more compelling origin story for the modern Western public. The line of descent traced from the Greek polis and the cliched image of people in togas milling about somehow seems more like elite wishful thinking. The idea that the public had to be re-appropriated from private hands by commoners, with cash payments to newly impoverished nobility, is worth mulling.
This second usage is more common today. Public as a term for the invisible masses telling the elites how to move.
This is the public that can exhibit "sentiments" and "opinions" in the aggregate, and indirectly through a measuring instrument, rather than atomically and directly by appearing in public as elites do. It is mostly voiceless except through aggregated votes. It mostly lacks agency except through aggregated dollars. It mostly remains unheard except for the occasional primal collective roar of ressentiment. It is mostly unseen except in the form of zombie mobs.
It is mostly unfelt except during civil wars and coups.
This is the sense of public that has lately been in a state of continuous revolt for the last few years, as Martin Gurri has argued (or perhaps for a whole century if you like Ortega’s theories). It is also, I believe, the sort of public that is descended from the kind that bought its freedom from financially distressed nobility in the Middle Ages.
And right now, this is the public that is sick of social distancing and is rebelling by returning to public beaches in California.
The two usages are not really in conflict though; they are just two sides of the same coin, one visible, one invisible. When they are in a peaceful kind of shape-and-curve relationship suggested by the relativistic interpretation of the Corey Robin definition, you get a public. When they are in a warlike mood, you get what I have previously called The Internet of Beefs — a failed public turned battlefield.
In other words, Robin's idea can be reframed as follows: intellectuals must create the first kind of public that then creates the second kind of public… that then remakes the first kind, and so on. It’s an eternal cycle that can only be changed by the injection of new ideas, or by new material conditions on the boundary of the social — such as a pandemic.
I have sketched out the prevailing understanding of what a public is, both as a spatial organizing technology, and a pattern of relationships between elites and masses. So where does that leave us?
That much will remain unchanged I think. As a social species, we seem to live life in a certain way, by dividing ourselves into elites and masses, that interact in certain ways to either create healthy publics or toxic battlegrounds.
Both kinds of interactions are shaped by the evolution of technology. Weapons shape battles, while communication media shape publics.
Right now, the default kind of public — the physical town-square kind — has been shut down by a pandemic, and we have been forced to retreat to digital substitutes. We are reimagining and evolving those substitutes vigorously right now. When we return to physical publics, we will do so with expanded imaginations with which we will be rethinking physical public spaces as well.
The idea of a public is going to be reshaped as a result. How? Only time will tell.