📑 To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks

Bookmarked To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks by Eli Pariser (WIRED)

We need public spaces, built in the spirit of Walt Whitman, that allow us to gather, communicate, and share in something bigger than ourselves.

Eli Pariser reflects upon Walt Whitman’s creation of Fort Greene Park in 1846 and suggests we need an online version of a shared public space. He suggests that there are three problems with the current space: it encourages a frictionless experience, unequal by design and  the lack of maintenance/governance. Pariser discusses three challenges that need to be overcome in the creation of such a space: funding, talent and will.

Private spaces and businesses are critical for a flourishing digital life, just as cafés, bars, and bookstores are critical for a flourishing urban life. But no communities have ever survived and grown with private entities alone. Just as bookstores will never serve all the same community needs as a public library branch, it’s unreasonable to expect for-profit corporations built with “addressable markets” in mind to accommodate every digital need.

Alongside and between the digital corporate empires, we need what scholars like Ethan Zuckerman are calling “digital public infrastructure.” We need parks, libraries, and truly public squares on the internet.

This reminds me of Michael Caulfield’s discussion of the garden and the stream and Ethan Zuckerman’s work on digital public infrastructure. It was also interesting to read about the place of libraries. This had me thinking about Greg McVerry’s idea of borrowing/renting domain space from the local library.

In his commentary, John Naughton spoke about the rise of the automated public sphere, rather than the one that was hoped for.

When the internet arrived, many of us thought it would provide a virtual space that would be like Whitman’s concept, except on a global scale. In my case, I saw it as the first instantiation of Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere”. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, this looks like utopianism, but it was real enough at the time. The problem was that it blissfully underestimated the capacity of private corporations to colonise cyberspace and create what the legal scholar Frank Pasquale designated an “automated public sphere” – ie, a collection of privately owned spaces (walled gardens) that we know as social media.

In a different take, Richard Flanagan references John Clare and his writing about the enclosure movement in Britain in 19th century to privatize common waste. For Flanagan, we are going through a second great enclosure, where these platforms are enclosing our emotions, soul and fear.

I wonder if that makes someone like Kicks Condor a modern John Clare?

5 responses on “📑 To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks”

  1. Isn’t this a great post Aaron, I’ve been re reading it over and over. I love how you link it to Greg’s @jgmac1106 domains from the library idea.
    It is a tricky problem to get to a truly public space from our current private and commercial ones? I recall an idea that I think was talked about in Scotland about giving everyone a domain name when they were born linked to some sort of identifier. Something like that could be linked to different services at different times and deal with the fast pace changes in internet services.

  2. Sean Illing speaks with Johann Hari about his book Stolen Focus. Hari argues that simply turning away from technology is fatalistic, because it is not going to happen. What needs to change is the actual technology itself:

    I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley interviewing some of the leading dissidents there, people who designed key aspects of the world in which we now live. And some aspects of the individual attention component in this are now becoming well understood. It’s important to say, though, that the way big tech wants us to frame this debate is, are you pro-tech or anti-tech? And that framing induces fatalism because we’re not going to give up our technology.
    The real question is, what kind of tech do we want and whose interests should it serve?
    Sean Illing https://www.vox.com/vox-conversations-podcast/2022/2/8/22910773/vox-conversations-johann-hari-stolen-focus

    Hari provides two alternative models. One would be subscription based, like Netflix. The other is as a public utility:

    I remember saying to Aza and many of the other people who argue this to me, “Okay. But let’s imagine we do that, what happens the next day when I open Facebook, does it just say, ‘Sorry guys, we’ve gone fishing”? And they said, “Of course not.” What would happen is they would move to a different business model. And we all have experience of two possible alternative business models. One is subscription and everyone knows how platforms like Netflix and HBO work.
    Another model that everyone can understand is something like the sewer system. Before we had sewers, we had shit in the streets, we had cholera. So we all paid to build the sewers and we all own the sewers together. I own the sewers in London and Las Vegas, you own the sewers in the city where you live. So just as we all own the sewage pipes together, we might want to own the information pipes together, because we are getting the attentional equivalent of cholera and the political equivalent of cholera.
    Sean Illing https://www.vox.com/vox-conversations-podcast/2022/2/8/22910773/vox-conversations-johann-hari-stolen-focus

    This reminds me of Eli Pariser’s argument that to mend a broken internet, create online parks

  3. In a podcast unpacking biofortification, Jeremy Cherfas explores how science has not delivered on the promises, especially regarding yield. One of the interesting points raised is the idea of ‘hidden hunger’, this is where people get enough food, but not enough micronutrients.

    One aspect of malnutrition is hidden hunger, a lack of micronutrients in the diet resulting in poor health that may not manifest for months or years.Source: What is wrong with biofortification by Maarten van Ginkel and Jeremy Cherfas

    This idea had me thinking about our digital diets, where we often get too much information, but not enough critical content. This can subsequently leave us with ‘hidden hunger’. Although we may spend time clicking and consuming social media, there is something missing.

    One place I have found myself continually going to over the last few years has been The Minefield podcast featuring lecturer in politics and journalist, Waleed Aly, and, philosopher and theologian, Scott Stephens. Their weekly discussions diving into wicked problems always leave me thinking differently about the world around me. In part, this is for the way in which they never quite agree, but always find some sort of consensus. (For me, their dialogue represents what Angus Hervey describes as holding on tightly and letting go lightly.) I was therefore intrigued to read their Quarterly Essay Uncivil Wars: How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy

    At its heart, Uncivil Wars argues that democracy cannot survive contempt. Democracy, Aly and Stephens explain, is about cultivating a common life even in the presence of serious disagreement, while contempt is about having no life in common at all. They suggest that, to make this argument requires a careful consideration of both contempt and democracy, but it also requires us to think about the conditions in which we are going about our democratic lives. So they divide their argument into three stages.

    First, we draw on the insights of moral philopsohy to make clear what we mean by contempt and to identify precisely what makes it morally suspect. Along the way, we engage with recent philosophical and policatical arguments that seek to validate contempt in certain circumstances. Even those arguments, we note, require participants in public debate to practice a high level of restraint.Next, we show that such restraint is rendered completely unrealistic given the environment in which our public conversation takes place. We argue that the machinery of public discourse, dominated by media and social media, is powerfully designed to manipulate, inflame and commodify our moral emotions, impelling us towards an unrestrainted contempt for each other.Finally, we argue that such contempt is ultimately incompatible with and thoroughly corrosive of democracy itself.Source: Uncivil Wars by Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens

    Aly and Stephens describe contempt as being personal, judgmental, comparative, performative, an enduring disposition, a way of acting and feeling towards others. Breaking this down further, they identify three particular types of contempt:

    Patronising Contempt. This is ‘knowing without being known, speaking without being addressed.’ An example is Malcolm Turnball’s dismissal the Uluru Statement from the Heart where he showed contempt for indigenous people with the way in which he rejected it.Downward Contempt. This is contempt that focuses on hierarchical order. An example of this is slavery and the prioritising one group over another.Moral Contempt. This is contempt that is not necessarily pre-existing, but arises out of a situation. It is the staple of tabloid journalism. It is also epitomised in the Robodebt’s contempt towards those receiving government payments and cancel culture.

    Aly and Stephens point out that these three types are not mutually exclusive. For example, the response to Yassmin Abdel-Magied a few years ago mixes cancel culture with a downward contempt of gender and religion. In the end, these three types are brought together by there deep dismissal of others with no place for forgiveness. Oddly, contempt is often self-fulfilling.

    For Aly and Stephens, ‘air’ is more than the oxygen we breathe, it is the space that occupies the space, it is where democracy exists. They use a quote from Luce Irigaray to capture the way in which our public life is beholden to the air that we breathe.

    Air is the medium of our natural and spiritual life, of our relation to ourselves, to speaking, to the other – Page 67Source: Way of Love by Luce Irigaray

    Sadly, actions such as ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ in the open air of Twitter serve as moral contagion and help build outgroup animosity. Social media acts as a contempt machine and helps push us all towards the tabloidisation of everything.

    Aly and Stephens use a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson discussing the way in which Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made everyone culpable for slavery to capture the situation.

    We do not breathe well. There is infamy in the air.Source: The selected lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Rather than tending to the air, media platforms suck everyone into a game where virality is the goal. Every speech act is reduced to a positive or negative response, this leads to a situation where contempt occurs before moral considerations of the other. This leaves us incomprehensible, unknown and unknowable to others.

    Although there are always limits, the problem is that in the modern world this has become the first questions we ask. Little room is left for complexity and consensus. For Aly and Stephens, our focus should be on ‘thick democracy’, the reciprocal act of hope, interdependence and attention.

    Democracy lives by and through such incidental acknowledgements of the moral reality of other persons.Source: Uncivil Wars by Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens

    Borrowing from Simone Weil, they talk about the importance of being attentive to the best of arguments of the others view, rather than a caricature. Weil talks about the symbolic language of lovers and the way this cultivates the relationship. With this, we need to think of democracy as a marriage that is continually cultivated.

    We have become profoundly unreal to each other and therefore inattentiveness to the moral reality of our fellow citizens. This is perhaps the greatest irony. For all the talk of the attention economy, attention is precisely what our social media saturated age disallows. We are living in a time of contempt and the future of our democratic life depends on whether we can resist it.Source: Uncivil Wars by Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens

    With the movement away from platforms like Twitter and Facebook, it can be a useful time to consider what such spaces serve and what a constructive alternative maybe to borrow from Doug Belshaw. What might it mean to form what Eli Pariser has described as ‘online parks‘:

    We need public spaces, built in the spirit of Walt Whitman, that allow us to gather, communicate, and share in something bigger than ourselves.Source: To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks by Eli Pariser

    All in all, Uncivil Wars is a thought provoking book, which demands attention and consideration.

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    REVIEW: Uncivil Wars – How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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