Public Parts: atomize & reform

I’ve been rewriting the introduction to Public Parts — both because it needs it and because of events in Egypt and elsewhere. This segment, from the end of the introduction, is related to the post below. I thought I’d share it with you as it adds some more thinking on the same topics:

* * *

Technology is forcing us to question centuries-old assumptions about the roles of the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects. 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. In recent centuries, being public “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, with our 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, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom but that freedom is often used to collect into new societies.

Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.

The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not. I mean it’s our tool of disruption, the catalyst that breaks old bonds once again and sets us loose to explore our natures anew. This transformation takes trivial form: we no longer all watch the same, shared news with the same, one-size-fits-all viewpoint. R.I.P. Uncle Walter. Clearly, this transformation also takes earth-shattering form: revolutions, dead industries, economic upheaval. We atomize. We reform. We want to be apart—too far apart, some fear. See the book Bowling Alone, in which Robert Putnam worries that we are becoming disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and society. But then we want to be together. That book inspired entrepreneur Scott Heiferman to found, a platform that lets groups organize meetings in person around whatever interests they have, from dogs to dance, sci-fi to society. Atomize. Reform. We can now find the publics we wish to join based not on the gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us by others—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, hunters, birders, even privacy advocates.

Publicness is an emblem of epochal change. It is profoundly disruptive. Publicness threatens institutions whose power was invested in the control of information and audiences. That’s why we hear the incumbents protest this change and warn of its dangers. Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at their expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say. So if they are to survive and prosper, companies, governments, and institutions must learn to deal with us at eye-level, with respect for us as individuals and respect for the power we can now wield as groups—as publics. Many will not survive and will be replaced by entrepreneurs and insurgents, both good and bad.

The progression toward a more public society is apparent and inevitable; resistance is futile. But the form our new society will take is by no means predestined. We are at a critical moment with many choices. We who hold the tools of publicness hold keys to the future. We must decide how to use them. Rather than baying at the moon and cursing the tide, we would be wise to find opportunity and advantage, to decide the kind of future we want to build. . . . Now is the moment and we are the people to give shape to our next society. In each of our roles as individuals, parents, employees, employers, citizens, officials, and neighbors, each of us is deciding how private to be (safe, protective, closed, sometimes solitary, often anonymous) and how public (open, collaborative, collective, and vulnerable).

I remember watching the drama of Egypt’s revolution play out on Twitter. Silly little Twitter. It was supposed to be made for nothing more than sharing the narcissistic trivia of our lives as we each answered the simple question: What are you doing now? As if the world should care, right? During the Egyptian revolt, I tweeted how jarring the contrast could be between the very everyday updates of people I knew—meals, dates, travels, shows, complaints, cats—flowing next to the messages of courage, fear, exhilaration, and determination I saw from the brave people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, strangers I was coming to know and respect by the minute.

@ghonim—Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was credited with helping spark this revolution using a Facebook page—had been held prisoner by Hosni Mubarak’s police; his followers and fans would believe he was free only when they saw him say so in a tweet. He used the tool to deliver news, inspiration, and support: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” On the night 17 days into the 18-day revolution when the people of the square believed the dictator Mubarak would leave—but he did not—@ghonim had tweeted, “Heading to Tahrir” and “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished.” The next morning, Mubarak was not gone. The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness. And then Mubarak did leave. “Welcome back, Egypt,” he tweeted. “They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days.”

At every minute in this momentous story, it was evident how precarious the next minute would be, the one after that only more so. Mubarak might or might not leave sooner or later. The army could shift this way or that. Thugs with rocks could return to the square. Authorities could use the internet themselves to spread misinformation and find and arrest the protestors. Out of habit, I watched the news progress on TV, but most of the time, even Al Jazeera English had only a telephoto shot of the square from a safe distance with commentary that could do little more than repeat itself. TV could hear few voices from the square.

On Twitter, a virtuoso of the form, @acarvin—National Public Radio social-media strategist Andy Carvin—spent hours and days constantly curating the best he could find from the people who were on the ground. He passed on news and debunked rumors and asked the people who were there what was really happening. He quoted—retweeted, that is—people like @sandmonkey, a brave blogger who six years before began to use these tools to share his ideas and experiences in Egypt with the world. Early in my blogging days, I had learned much from him. After the protestors’ victory he blogged, “Tonight will be the first night where I go to bed and don’t have to worry about state security hunting me down, or about government goons sent to kidnap me; or about government sponsored hackers attacking my website. Tonight, for the first time ever, I feel free … and it is awesome!” Sandmonkey replaced his cartoon avatar on Twitter with a picture of the real him and published his name, Mahmoud Salem.

Even as you read this [the book is coming out in the fall of 2011], months after the revolution began, it is, of course, far too soon to know how this story will turn out. There is no script and not even a dramatis personae of leading actors. @ghonim, who brought many people to Facebook, Twitter, and the square, demurred as a leader, vowing on Twitter that he would return to his normal life at Google when this work was done. What kind of society Egypt can build and maintain post-Mubarak teeters on so many risks, needs, and warring interests, but also on so many new opportunities. Just as Egypt’s society of the future could go many ways, so could ours and other societies yet to emerge.

The new age has its doubters. Young curmudgeon Malcolm Gladwell says, “surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protestors may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Well, I have no doubt that the tools of publicness played a role in helping a true Egypt of the people rise from silence to be heard at last. These tools enabled them to share their information, their frustration, and their dreams. That is why Mubarak shut down the internet and mobile phones completely, because they were a threat—and the fact that any one man could do that must worry us all. But even Mubarak had to turn it back on, because the internet is that vital to life now. Yet in the end, Gladwell is at least right about this: the tools are only tools. The revolution is the people’s. As a blogger reminded us on Al Jazeera English, Twitter did not fight Mubarak’s police. Egyptians did. Facebook will not create the new society. But here’s where Gladwell’s wrong: This new society used Facebook to help shape itself.

“What kind of world would make the values of both publicness and privacy equally accessible to all?” asks Michael Warner. That is our challenge: to find a new balance between us as free individuals and as members of a public who freely join together to build better, more open, more generous, and more accountable companies, markets, communities, governments, schools, relationships, and lives. There is a need for privacy, its cautions, and its advocates, to be sure. But publicness also needs its advocate. That is this book.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Public Parts: atomize & reform « BuzzMachine --

  • I can’t wait for the audiobook :)

    BTW, “The net is everyone’s printing press. I don’t mean it’s a medium; I just said it’s not.” — for the love of me I can’t find the earlier reference even though I was sure it was there.

  • Steven Johnson in his book “Where good ideas come from” notes:

    “The history of life and human culture, [then], can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.”

    I think your indications of what you are going to discuss in your new book is a very good example of Steven’s observation of how ideas progress. And good on you for being willing to tackle such a complex subject.

    I also think that your willingness to discuss how the book is progressing as you write it is great and shows that you can put into practice what you are writing about. Authors typically choose who they discuss a new book with;
    to put the discussion on the web certainly opens a “new pathway to explore”.

    I look forward to “hearing” more about how the book is progressing.

  • Finally got around to reading this post. I think the inclusion of the Egyptian revolution works well. One suggestion: be specific about the Twitter function of “followers” when referring to Wael Ghonim’s actions, otherwise it sounds like followers of him as a traditional leader, which I’m sure you don’t mean.

    “The work of the revolution not yet over, Ghonim told his TWITTER/FACEBOOK followers and the media that he would not be speaking through the press but through his Facebook page, his tool of publicness.”

  • Pingback: The distraction trope « BuzzMachine()

  • Pingback: Jeff Jarvis: The Distraction Trope at

  • Pingback: The Distraction Trope | mediaIDEAS blog()

  • Pingback: The Distraction Trope - Twitter... is distracting us... from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking Blaise D'Souza Trail Blaisers | Blaise D'Souza Trail Blaisers()

  • Re: “In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies.”

    I wish you and Clay Shirky and some of the other cyber-utopians would sit down and read some books about the effect of Gutenberg on civilization. Each time you guys write about it, you get wackier and wackier. Shirky claims it destroyed the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church was the first to use it to print indulgences and in fact still remains a spiritual if not a worldly power. Atomizing? Huh? The idea that a woman in a Dutch painting reading a book is somehow a hallmark of individualization is absurd, because minutes later she would be called to fit into the cog of household and society in a subserviant role at that time.

    I don’t understand why you keep having so little regard for the individual and individuals rights, Jeff. You don’t have that little regard for yourself, surely, and don’t really believe that you personally collectivized (instead of aggrandized) when you go online.

    So why round up the rest of us? Human rights reside in the concept of individual rights, and are essentially related to property, whether you think you’re atom-smashing it with the Internet as the collider or not.

    And then when you get done smashing the individual, suddenly you invoke an actual individual making a difference in history, Wael Ghonim. Or is he only empowered because he’s a Google engineer, part of some Googlian collective that dispatches engineers out to the world to do social engineering along with coding? Yet Wael, from all accounts, had to show individual bravery and accountability that his employer hasn’t always shown.

    • Methinks the lady doth project too much.

      Such cynicism.

      Note that I’m quoting Eisenstein on Gutenberg. (Have you read her new book? It’s quite good.)

      Of course, printing was used by all parties to the Reformation. Gutenberg himself printed indulgences (after he got out of the business of making badges for a pilgrimage that was rudely interrupted by a plague). Various in the church attempted to control and censor the press; the point is that they failed. As for the woman in the painting, you misquote me. I am saying that seeing others allows one to compare them to oneself and thus start to define oneself in relation. Around that, say the scholars brought together by McGill University Prof. Paul Yachnin in the Making Publics project, there is a sign of gathering a public of people who do not know each other around ideas and information. That’s the importance of it.

      As for individual rights, you have me 180 degrees wrong. I believe that publicness is what empowers people to be themselves, not part of a mass they did not create.

      You keep imagining that I am saying what you don’t like. You are not listening.

  • Pingback: Readings + Reactions for 3.17.11 « Online Journalism: Spring 2011()

  • Pingback: Readings + Reactions for 3.17.11 « Mobile Journalism: Spring 2011()

  • Pingback: I’d rather be a Twitter triumphalist than a curmudgeonly catastrophist | Richard Hartley()