Posts about public

Occupy #OccupyWallStreet

It is time for Twitter and its citizens to take back #OccupyWallStreet.

I say that with no disrespect to the efforts and sacrifices of the people who have taken the hashtag literally and moved into Wall Street and cities around the world, confronting the institutions — financial, government, and media — they blame for our crisis.

To the contrary, I say it’s time to carry their work back to our virtual society, where it began, to expand the movement so Michael Bloomberg and his downtown goombas and mayors and cops cannot think that they are able throw it away in a garbage truck; so banks cannot hope to return to their old ways; so media cannot think that it can dismiss #OWS as fringe (see the BBC and the FT each calling the movement “anti-capitalist” when many of us say the real goal is to reclaim capitalism from its crooks).

It is much bigger than the scores of occupants in each city. But that still raises the question of what “it” is.

That is where I believe Twitter can grow and give shape to the movement. There we can answer the question, What are we mad as hell about (should that be a hashtag debate: #why…)? There we can organize no end of irritants for institutions (we can play whack-a-mole with the banks’ rip-off fees and leave them as customers). There we can hold politicians to account.

Some have argued that #OWS will not grow up as a movement until it becomes an institution and has leadership and spokesmen and unified goals and messages and even candidates for office.

Heaven forbid.

#OccupyWallStreet, in my view, is anti-institutional in that it is fighting institutional power and corruption and in that it is not an institution itself. I believe the value of #OWS is that it enables us to say how and why we’re angry and to make the powerful come to us and beg us for forgiveness, not to join their games.

#OccupyWallStreet, the hashtag revolution, establishes us, the public, as an entity to be reckoned with. It is a tool of publicness.

So I support #OWS becoming less literal — let Michael J Bloomberg tear down the tents — and more amorphous, more difficult to define and dismiss and shut down.

#OccupyWallStreet started on Twitter and spread to the streets. Now it’s time come back online and spread further.

Why are you mad as hell? And what are you going to do about it? That is #OWS’ challenge to us all.

The progression of the public

I’m editing the manuscript for Public Parts now and so I’ll be throwing out some thoughts from the book to get your thoughts in return. Here, from my introduction, are what I see as the four stages in our conception of “public”:

1. From ancient times to the Renaissance, “public” was synonymous with the state and the state was synonymous not with its people (that’s our modern notion) but with its rulers. Leaders were not merely public figures; they embodied the public. The people had little political standing. They had little independent identity. “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” writes historian Jacob Burkhardt in Civilization of the Renaissance (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change).

2. In the so-called early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (also known as the Renaissance), Gutenberg’s printing press as well as the theater, music, art, maps, and markets enabled some people to create their own publics, as the Making Publics project at McGill University argues (I’ll explore their ideas further in a later chapter). These were voluntary publics formed among strangers sharing similar interests—which could mean simply that they read the same book and then contemplated and discussed the same ideas. Now it was possible for private individuals to take on and share a public identity independent of the state.

3. In the 18th century, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, the public sphere—and public opinion—first appeared as a political force and a counterweight to the state. Finally, the public began to mean the people. Habermas believes that a brief, golden age of rational, critical debate in society, carried out in the coffee houses of England and salons of Europe, was soon corrupted by mass media. I’ll argue differently, suggesting that the real corruption of the ideal of the public was to throw us all into a single public sphere, a mass—the lumpenpublic. To this day, the assumption that we are one public—which is the basis of mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass media—has enabled government, companies, and media to avoid dealing with us as distinct individuals and groups and instead to see us as faceless poll numbers and anonymous demographics.

4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean. Like our early-modern ancestors, we—but all of us now—have the tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) to create and join publics, establishing our own identities and societies. I see that as a purer form of the public, built not around the interests of the powerful but instead around our own interests, desires, and needs. Rather than being forced into a public not of our own making, we now define ourselves and our publics. The new vision of the public may look chaotic, but then change always does. The critical difference today—the next step in the evolution of the idea—is that a public is no longer a one-way entity, flowing from the powerful—king, politician, publisher, or performer—to an audience. Now through our conversation and collaboration, ignoring old boundaries, we define our publics.

In this progression, we are continuing—but accelerating—a timeless dance of balancing the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects; our privacy and publicness. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy; while in recent centuries publicness “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, together.

So today are atomizing because we have the freedom to be independent. Then we can reform into new molecules because we are social; we need each other and can accomplish more together than apart. We find the publics we wish to join based not merely on gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, even privacy advocates. We finally tear down the elite of the public few and each become public people in our own right. . . .

Defending public as a journalistic doctrine

In a few countries around the world, we’ve seen a backlash against Google’s Streetview as somehow an invasion of privacy, even though what Google captures is the very definition of public: what can be seen in the open.

I wish that journalists would defend Google and its definition of public, for it matters to journalism.

See Peter Cashmore’s report on Streetview’s capturing of a crack in a building that collapsed today in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. Google captured what it thought was merely data but data turns out to be news.

When I was in Amsterdam for the Next09 conference, the Streetview controversy was in full bloom because Google’s oggling cars had just toured its streets (and canals?). Now I’d been told by German friends that Holland is different from the more closed societies in Europe, as folks leave their front windows and doors open, ashamed of and hiding nothing. Nonetheless the Dutch were hinky about Streetview, even journalists I met.

I argued with those Dutch journalists that if a city official were caught red-handed in the red-light district by a journalist’s camera – or a witness’ – there’s no difference if Google’s camera captures it. It’s public. It’s news. But if that politician is given the ability to quash Google’s photo, then it’s a short step to setting a precedent so a journalist’s photo could be quashed, on the basis that the private can occur in public.

No, public is public. We need that to be the case, for journalism and for society. We must protect the idea of public.

What is happening in Iran this week is public, no matter how much the despots try to make it private. See, too, this Guardian report in which a witness captured images of police allegedly roughing up and arresting citizens for demanding officers’ badge numbers and photographing them – for enforcing the doctrine of publicness with public officials.

Indeed, I’d say this doctrine should stretch to saying that everything a public official does is public – everything except matters of security. Thus Britain’s MPs would not be allowed to black out their spending of taxpayers’ money. Thus the default in American government would be transparency, making any official’s actions and information open and searchable. Thus anyone in Ft. Greene could scour Streetview to look for unsafe buildings.

What happens in public is the public’s – it’s ours.