“The public sphere is under attack, not from privatisation, but from the web”

Stop worrying about the privatisation of public spaces, says Owen Hopkins, because the biggest threat to our democracy is the internet.

It’s hard to believe the web is still just 30 years old. Despite the extraordinary ways it and the world have changed over that time, there’s one early adage that still holds firm. Conceived by American attorney Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s law, as it has become known, states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”.

I was reminded of this recently, when it was announced that the winning entry for the commission to curate the British Pavilion at next year’s Venice Architecture Biennale would be exploring the “creeping epidemic” of privatised public space across Britain’s cities.

It’s a live and contentious subject that has sparked a huge amount of debate in architectural circles and beyond, yet to my mind mostly misses the point.

What’s important is how a space is managed, where it’s located, what amenities it offers and how people interact in it, rather than whether it is publicly or privately owned

Public space does not exist in the abstract. What’s important is how a space is managed, where it’s located, what amenities it offers and how people interact in it, rather than whether it is publicly or privately owned. Obsessing about ownership is fundamentally misguided. What matters far more is whether the space allows for the types of social interaction that contribute to the “public sphere”.

The public sphere as we know it first emerged in the 18th century, when individuals came together for the first time to debate ideas and issues of public concern. Free from the yoke of church or state, it forms the basis of western liberal democracy. In its tolerance of opposing views and opinions, its belief in the power of rational argument, free expression and the autonomous individual, it is embedded in our public institutions and in a media that holds power to account.

Today, however, the public sphere is under attack, not because of privatisation of public spaces, but from the web.

In its early days, it was commonplace to see the web almost as a utopian creation in its capacity to connect and bring the world together. However, as the web has grown in extent, functionality and influence, the naivety of these early ideals has been sorely exposed. Rather than being a place where the public sphere might extend into new dimensions, the web now threatens its very existence.

Part of this stems from the web’s disruption of the newspaper industry – a key pillar on which the public sphere is built. With users expecting everything online to be free, news providers are now left scrabbling for the scraps of advertising revenue that isn’t gobbled up by the social-media giants.

It seems legitimate to question whether free will as we know it is possible online

Yet the web’s assault on the public sphere runs far deeper.

Until recently Facebook proclaimed itself as the digital “town square” – a place where people could meet and share their content – and, of course, all for free. But as has become abundantly clear, when you access a big platform online with no entrance fee, it’s because you are the product. Whether through posting on Facebook, watching a video on YouTube or in a simple Google search, big tech is constantly scooping up our data. Our every interaction online is used to refine an algorithm whose chief role is to predict what we might do next.

The result of this is that our experience online is increasingly personalised. Advertisers love this because it means we see products that we are more likely to buy, with adverts chasing us from website to website now a familiar experience online. But it also extends to news and especially politics. If we only see posts that we are likely to agree with already, when we encounter something that we don’t, it appears all the more extreme. This is bad enough when those posts are true, when they’re intentionally false – or “fake” – then the consequences are even more troubling.

However, it’s not simply about what’s shared, but how. The way we communicate online is by definition dislocated and often anonymous, with most interactions brief and reduced to text and image devoid of tone, origin and context – and all done at such a speed that gives little time for reasoned thought. It’s this more than anything else that makes Godwin’s law possible.

But it doesn’t end there. Even as something as basic as the search query field privileges retrieving information over understanding, assimilating and debating it. Moreover, given how our search results are informed – and via auto-complete, even preempted – by what we searched for previously, it seems legitimate to question whether free will as we know it is possible online.

The results of this are now plain to see. With a US president whose use of Twitter to attack and belittle opponents takes the notion of the “bully pulpit” to a frightening extreme, Russian troll farms interfering in western elections, YouTube’s algorithms that promote conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination propaganda, and ISIS’s use of social media for recruitment, the internet has left the public sphere in a pretty sorry state.

We’ve reached this position before the advent of pervasive AI and AR, the impacts of which could be even more profound

What’s most alarming, though, is that we’ve reached this position before the advent of pervasive AI and AR, the impacts of which could be even more profound. “Deep fakes” are just the beginning.

Given the role of the big tech companies in bringing about this situation and the vested interests they have in its continuation, there is growing clamour for more stringent regulation to make them responsible for what’s posted, and, from some quarters, for them to be broken up entirely. Certainly, as a society we often create laws to guard against products that are addictive, and deleterious to human relationships and the mental health and wellbeing of their users. So why should we make an exception here?

But this would only be part of the solution. The web’s problems are structural rather than simply about content.

Some see a saviour in the growing movement advocating the “de-centralised web”. In short, this is a way of getting back to the days before Web 2.0, with data shared through peer-to-peer networks and a community of users, rather than through a few massive, centralised platforms.

While this tackles one aspect of the problem, it does not change the basic fact that the fundamental means through which we communicate online are serving to make public debate more polarised, more extreme and less capable of compromise and consensus.

It is no overstatement to say that as it is currently constituted, the internet is broken and technology alone won’t be enough to fix it. Equivalent to how in the debate about public and private space the question of ownership is essentially a red herring, technology itself doesn’t determine our behaviour. As a platform for activity the web is essentially neutral. What’s important is how it’s used and managed, and the values and ideals that inform those activities.

In an article in the The Atlantic, the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger made the prophetic remark: “The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy.”

The question for all of us today is whether we can find that guiding philosophy before it’s too late.

Main image is by Louis Lo/Stocksnap.

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