Public Spaces is an effort to reshape the internet experience towards a much larger emphasis on, well, public spaces. Currently most online public debate is taking place in silos provided by monopolistic corporations, where public values will always be trumped by value extraction regardless of externalised costs to communities, ethics, and society. Today the Public Spaces 2022 conference took place. I watched the 2021 edition online, but this time decided to be in the room. This to have time to interact with other participants and see who sees itself as part of this effort. Public Spaces is supported by 50 or so organisations, one of which I’m a board member of. Despite that nominal involvement I am still somewhat unclear about what the purpose of Public Spaces as a movement, not as an intention, is. This first day of the 2-day conference didn’t make that clearer to me, but the actual sessions and conversations were definitely worthwile to me.
Some first observations that I jotted down on the way home, below the photo taken just before the start of the conference.
a) In the audience and on stage there were some known faces, but mostly people unknown to me. Good thing, as it demonstrates how many new entrants into these discussions there are. At the same time there was also a notable absence of faces, e.g. from the organisations part of the Public Spaces effort. Maybe it’s because they rather show up tomorrow when the deputy minister is also present. As an awareness raising exercise, despite this still being a rather niche and like minded audience, this conference is certainly valuable.
b) That value was I think mostly expressed by the attention given to explaining some of the newly agreed European laws, the Digital Markets Act, Digitals Services Act and Data Governance Act. For most of the audience this looks like the first actual encounter with what those laws say, and one panel moderator upon hearing its contents showed themselves surprised this was already decided regulation and not stuck somewhere in a long and slow pipeline of debate and lobbying.
c) It was very good to hear people on stage actually speaking enthusiastically about the things these new laws deliver, despite being cautious about the pace of implementation and when we’ll see the actual impact of these rules. Lotje Beek of Bits of Freedom was enthusiastic about the Digital Services Act and I applaud the work BoF has done in the past years on this. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of an NGO that joins forces with BoF and Waag, organiser of this conference, in the so-called Digital Four, which lobbies the Dutch government on digital affairs.)
Similarly Kim van Sparrentak, MEP for the Greens, talked with energy about the Digital Markets Act. This was very important I think, and helps impress on the audience to engage with these new laws and the tools they provide.
d) The opening talk by Miriam Rasch I enjoyed a lot. Her earlier book Friction E felt seemingly lacked some deeper understanding of the technologies involved to build the conclusions and arguments on, so I was interested in hearing her talk in person. The focus today was more on her second book Autonomy. I
‘ll buy bought it and will read it, also to clarify whether some of the things I think I heard are my misunderstanding or parts of the ideas expressed in the book. Rasch positions autonomy as the key thing to guard and strengthen. She doesn’t mean autonomy in the sense of being fully disconnected from everyone else in your decisions, but in a more interdependent way. To make your own choices, within the network of relationships around you. Also as an emotionally rooted thing, which I thought is a useful insight. She does position it as something exclusively individual. At the same time it seems she equates autonomy with agency, and I think agency does not merely reside on the individual level but also in groups of relationships in a given context (I call it networked agency). It seemed a very westernised individualistic viewpoint, that I think sets you up for less autonomy because it pits you individually against the much bigger systems and structures that erode your autonomy, dumping you in a very assymetric power struggle. A second thing that stood out to me is how she expresses the me-against-the-system issue as one of autonomy versus automation. It’s a nice alliteration, but I don’t accept that juxtaposition. It’s definitely the case that automation is frequently used to dehumanise lots of decisions, and thus eroding the autonomy of those being decided about. But to me it’s not inherent in automation. When you have the logic of (corporate) bureaucracies doing the automation, you’ll end up with automation that mimics that logic. If I do the automation it will mimic my logic. I use automation a lot for my own purposes (personal software), and it increases my agency, it’s a direct expression of my autonomy (or that of the groups I’m part of). There’s more to be said, in a separate post, a.o. about the 3 or 4 thinking exercises she took us through to explore autonomy as a concept for ourselves. After all it wouldn’t make us more autonomous if she would prescribe us her definition of autonomy, precisely because she underscores that it’s not a purely rational concept but an emotional one as well.
e) Prof. Tamar Sharon of Radboud University spoke about the influence tech companies have in other domains than tech itself because of their technology being expanded into or used in those domains such as health, education, spatial planning, media. She calls it sphere transgressions. This may bring value, but may also be problematic. She showed a very cool tool that visualises how various tech companies are influential in domains you don’t immediately associate them with. A good thinking aid I think also in the upcoming discussion about sectoral European data spaces and being alert to the pitfall of it turning into a tech dominated discussion, rather than a societal benefit and impact discussion.
f) Kudos to the conference organisers. Every panel composition was nicely balanced, it shows good care in curating the program and having tapped into a high quality network. I know from experience that it takes deliberate effort to make it so. Also the catering was fully vegetarian and vegan, no words wasted on it, just by default. That’s the way to go.