Occupy DC

The Privatization of American Public Space

New Class War author Michael Lind argues that the mob assault on the Capitol reflected five simultaneous crises of American democracy: political, social, demographic, economic and cultural. In a far-ranging conversation today, I talked to Lind about these five crises and how to save American democracy.

There’s also a sixth problem - a kind of meta crisis - which ties together the different strands in Lind’s argument. That’s the crisis of public space. Or, more accurately, the privatization of both analog and digital public space in America today.

When you look at the photos of the American Visigoths looting the Capitol last week, it’s obvious that they have no conception of public space. Their justification for rampaging through this civically sacred space is that it represents “the people’s house” and, therefore, they own the Capitol. It’s as if this space is the political version of a shopping mall - a place to which they, as consumers rather than citizens, have a right to occupy.

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And it’s this absence of the geography of citizenship, in the minds of the invading hordes, which explains why they all conformed to the most disrespectful tourist rampaging through the Parthenon or the Louvre - simultaneously in awe and contemptuous of everything around them. Just look at the photos. Yes, we all now know the whole story in a single photo. But I actually prefer the images that capture the invaders’ obvious awkwardness in setting foot on such hallowed civic ground. They hadn’t read their Marx (especially the 18th Brumaire), of course, so they didn’t know how to play their historical roles. They didn’t even know what to wear to a revolution.

That’s the crisis of analog public space in contemporary America. I’m actually going to be thinking a lot more about this in our upcoming third season the How To Fix Democracy series which will, in 2021, focus on citizenship. Much more on this over the next few months.

And then there’s the crisis of digital public space which is particularly relevant this week, given Twitter’s decision to ban Trump and Big Tech’s elimination of Parler. But this vandalism can be blamed on the Visigoths of Silicon Valley rather than the suburbs.

Big Tech has played many cruel tricks on us since the 1998/99 Web 2.0 revolution. But their cruelest trick has been the privatization of public digital space. Tim Berners-Lee and the other Web 1.0 idealists imagined the Web as public space for respectful and responsible citizens. But the marketers at Google, Facebook and Twitter transformed Berners-Lee invention into a private space for consumers who, as we now know, actually became the disrespected products of these multi-billion dollar platforms. In fact, these private companies did such a good job deceiving users into thinking that the internet was digital public space that many of us are still under the illusion that Twitter or Facebook have a moral obligation to allow anyone to use their platforms.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Talia Stroud, the co-founder with Eli Pariser, of Civic Signals, a new group dedicated to (re)occupying digital public space. In our post 1/6 world, this conversation about digital public space is even more pertinent.

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