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re: <nettime> "public space" online: AOL public forums
Felix Stalder on Fri, 5 Feb 1999 10:51:07 +0100 (CET)

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re: <nettime> "public space" online: AOL public forums

Sean Aylward Smith wrote:

> Arguments about 'the structural transformation' of the
>public sphere that Habermas for one laments - in which the logic of
>commodity exchange has subverted for its own ends the bulwark of democracy
>that is the public sphere of rational discourse - are not merely
>innaccurate but nostalgic and, in the words of Enzensberger, "defeatist"
>and "defensive" (101). Such an account of the public sphere can offer no
>more than impotent moral outrage that something trhat was never the case
>in fact isn't the case.

By pointing at the problems of public space online in the light of  private
ownership I had not in mind the Habermasian lament about the encrochement
of the "lebenswelt" by the "systemwelt" or the reign of "instrumental
logic". This line of thinking, I couldn't agree more with Sean (or
Enzensberger), is nostalgic and defeatist.

I was lazy, merely hinting at the issues at stake, rather than taking some
time to spell them out.  So here we go:

Democracy in the form that has been developed in the last 200 years depends
on specific sets of institutions: freedom of speech, press and association,
some form of representative government, public education etc.  Public
space, in the double sense of the commons -- the physical space to which
everybody has access -- and the public sphere -- the realm where something
like a public discourse takes place -- is a product of a specific history
that has been inscribed in these institutions. A cultural, organizational
and legal framework defines the rights and obligations of actors which
together create that public space.

This space, of course, has always been distorted. The great Habermasian
ideal speech situation -- arguments are exchanged without tactics and
pressure until the best argument has been established -- was always just
that, an ideal. However, what has been achieved as approximation to it was
made possible by the establishment of certain rules that could not be
easily bent (at least in theory). In effect, the openness of a space was
the result of efforts that kept it open, rather than the virtue of the
space itself. In the absence of such efforts enclosure movement advance

What happens online is that certain groups -- public spirited or
commercially motivated -- set up a computer, invite users to express
themselves and call the result "public space", "electronic commons" or
"digital democracy". As long as everything flows as intended, everything is
nice and easy. A great public debate. Things get really interesting, as
always, when conflict arises.  In the case of AOL, conflict boils always
down to corporate policy which is something that, ideally, protects the
interests of shareholders rather users.  There is of course a certain
overlap between the two, but this overlap of far from being complete.
Litigation, for example, threatens shareholders (by lowering the
profitability of the enterprise which needs to pay) rather than the users.

Without established rights of user that cannot, if challenged, be
overridden by corporate policy there can be no public space.  If the
government could change the constitution at will, it would be worthless
(whether or not that happens in day-to-day politics is another question).

The difference between a corporate policy and a constitution is that in the
former those who write and change the rules are not the same than those who
are ruled while in the latter the rules are written and changed, again
ideally, by those who are ruled.

We have all witnessed  the emptying-out of the traditional democratic
institutions, most elections, while better than nothing, are a farce,
manipulated and framed beyond belief. Communication channels between the
representatives and their constituency have successfully been closed-off or
filtered. Given the sad history of reforms, there is little hope that the
traditional institution of the liberal democracy will ever get closer to
their ideal. This disillusionment with the political process has led to
great hopes about the democratic potential cyberspace.

These hopes have been dimmed somewhat lately, even though there is no need
to be as pessimistic as calling the technology itself "totalarian", as John
Armitage did in a recent ctheory article (#68). What we are learning is
that democracy, or public space, is not so much just the ability to speak,
but also the right to speak and the ability of enforce this right in a
situation of conflict.  How to update this right to the conditions of the
electronic environment is central question then.

In the mean time, there are some pragmatic work-around solutions: murkying
the structure of ownership is one way. Nettime itself is an example for
that. Who owns it? There is a technical term called "list-owner" but this
function is mostly technical. A changing cofiguration of people doing parts
of the maintance work without having control over the whole makes it more
difficult to enforce a policy and a certain flavour of informal rules
emerges.  How stable that is remains to be seen.

The other work-around solution is user control -- the classic co-operative
structure.  Their social complexity and slowness may be their greatest
strength in the cold and fast-paced electronic environment.  Maybe.

At any rate, public space needs more than a unilateral declaration of
publicty, it needs mechanisms to keep it public even if this is
inconvenient for some.


Les faits sont faits.
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