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Imagine Whitman

We need a new Walt Whitman to imagine a virtual public space | John Naughton

A remarkable essay in Wired has just caught my eye. “To mend a broken internet,” reads the headline, “create online parks.” The author is Eli Pariser, whose 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, provided an extraordinarily prescient warning of the way our networked world would evolve. In it, he…

A remarkable essay in Wired has just caught my eye. “To mend a broken internet,” reads the headline, “create online parks.” The author is Eli Pariser, whose 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, provided an extraordinarily prescient warning of the way our networked world would evolve. In it, he argued that “the rise of pervasive, embedded filtering is changing the way we experience the internet and ultimately the world”. We would, he warned, wind up living in “filter bubbles” – personalised information ecosystems or digital echo chambers – that insulate us from views of the world that do not accord with ours.

In the years since the book was published, there has been a good deal of scholarly argument about the extent to which we are really locked into those echo chambers or whether digital technology has really just reinforced aspects of human behaviour that have been innate since we were hunter-gatherers. But academic cavilling hasn’t invalidated Pariser’s basic insight – that algorithmic curation of our information flows has had a tangible impact on how people see the world. And as democracies have become increasingly polarised the impact of filter bubbles has become almost pathological, as even a casual inspection of what is happening in the US readily confirms.

Pariser’s new essay was prompted by reflecting on the Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, where he lives, a 30-acre square of elms, winding paths, playgrounds and monuments. The park serves, he writes, “as an early morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground and farm stand. There are house music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages and, of course, the world famous Great Pumpkin Halloween Dog Costume contest.” Most importantly, though, it allows very different people to gather and coexist in the same space. “When it’s all working,” he says, “Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.”

The nicest thing about his essay is its historic sensibility. In 1846, Walt Whitman envisioned Fort Greene Park to serve that democratic purpose. New York City had no public parks at the time, only walled commercial pleasure gardens for the wealthy. Whitman, then editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, campaigned for a space that would accommodate everyone, especially the working-class immigrants crowded into shantytowns along nearby Myrtle Avenue. And he succeeded.

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 the closing part of his essay, Pariser turns to the question of what would be required in order to build a digital public sphere that would not be subjected to the kinds of control and “monetisation” that are intrinsic to the fake public spaces of social media. There are, he thinks, three obstacles to be overcome.

The first is money. One possibility is a “guilty but loaded” tech billionaire who could play the role of a latterday Andrew Carnegie. Given the current crowd of moguls, who seem more interested in going to Mars rather than doing something useful on Earth, that might be a long shot. A better bet may be the idea floated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for a tax on digital advertising that would subsidise innovation “to reinvent the public functions that social media have displaced”.

A second challenge is to recruit the kind of tech talent that would be needed to build the infrastructure required to make a vast virtual public space work as efficiently and seamlessly as current privatised social media systems. The success of Linux, which actually underpins a huge amount of the privatised digital world, provides an example of what can be done if the project is exciting and challenging enough to attract talented techies who like nothing better than a difficult problem.

Finally, there’s the question of whether there’s the public imagination to envisage a challenge on this scale. “Fixing our ability to connect and build healthy communities at scale,” says Pariser, “is arguably an Apollo mission for this generation – a decisive challenge that will determine whether our society progresses or falls back into conspiracy-driven tribalism.”

He’s right. And the consoling thought is that we’ve done this before, with the BBC, for example, and before that with the public parks that became the lungs of our great cities. These projects required the same kind of imagination – and it was forthcoming. Walt Whitman had it. So the question for us is: who will be his modern counterparts?

What I’ve been reading

Big trouble

Congress gets ready to smash big tech monopolies is Matt Stoller’s bracing blog post on the congressional report on tech giants.

Hello, Dolly!

There’s a lovely New Yorker profile (The United States of Dolly Parton) of a formidable singer and businesswoman.

Life after the virus…

An illuminating essay in the Boston Review by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel reveals the lessons to be learned from the pandemic.

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