Publics and their Problems in Smart Environments

2.1 Smart Environments and the Public Sphere

Above I have tried to flesh out in what sense smart environments present us with a novel situation. My conclusion was that the computational layers that mediate our perception and cognition of the world are generating an environment that simulates agency. Whereas the International Telecommunications Union spoke of the Internet of Things as 'the offline world going online' (ITU 2005), in some sense the plethora of autonomic decision systems are turning our inanimate environment 'Onlife'. In this section I will investigate what this means for the public sphere, or even for the traditional private/public divide in itself. I will engage with the notion of the public sphere to inquire whether and how smart environments generate a kind of 'natality' here (Arendt 1958): a novelty, a beginning, an empty space to experiment—with as yet unknown affordances.

2.2 Public Private Social: Performance, Exposure, Opacity

Much has been written about the shrinking of the private, the blurring of the public/ private divide and, for instance, the loss of privacy in public (notably Nissenbaum 1997). Such shrinking, loss and blurring have been attributed to either the lure of self-publication in web 2.0 (Cohen 2012), or to the secretive trading with and spying on our behavioural data in the course of pervasive computing (Cohen 2012; Hildebrandt 2012).

Maybe we should return to Arendt (1958), when she spoke of the private as a sphere of necessity (the household), the public as the space for freedom (political action) and 'the social' as the emergence of mass society (bureaucracy, individual self-interest and conformity). Her understanding of 'the social' or what she called 'society' is not altogether positive, to put it mildly. Is the rise of web 2.0 antithetical to 'the social', because it concerns communication of one-2one, one-2-many as well as many-2-many, rather than many-2-one? Or does the processing of Big Data present us with 'the social' come true, where 'the social' is constituted by machine-readable bits and pieces that allow for the ultimate version of what Heidegger (1996) called 'das rechnende Denken' (calculative thinking)? I am not sure, and I believe the jury is still out. The answer will depend on empirical evidence of how 'the social' continues to evolve in smart environments.

I do think that Arendt's understanding of the private and the public might save us from dichotomous thinking, as well as from the glorification of 'private life' as a sphere of uncontroversial freedom. Simultaneously, we must come to terms with the fact that her glorification of the public sphere has little connection with present day politics, which rather fall within the scope of her depiction of 'the social'. We should also note that her glorification of politics as a 'theatre of debate' (other than the realm of household economics) is rooted in an appreciation of privacy as 'some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense' (Arendt 1958, S. 71). To speak and act 'in public' one must leave the security of one's home. But to distinguish oneself and to take the risk of being refuted, requires courage, daring and a place to hide. To recuperate from the tyranny of public opinion (Mill 1859) we need a measure of opacity to re-constitute the self, far from the social pressures that could turn us into obedient self-disciplined subjects (Hutton et al. 1988). In fact I would agree with Butler (2005), where she underscores the constitutive opacity of the self, that invites reiterant attempts to invent a coherent narrative of who we are, but at the same time escapes all narrative since the emergence of our self is hidden in our own prehistory (the infancy before we acquired language).

My question concerning the public in smart environments would thus be: how to design our ONLIFE in a way that affords a sustainable public performance[1], an empowering opacity of the self and a range of exposures that incorporates the need for self-expression, identity performance as well as the generosity of forgetfulness, erasure and the chance to reinvent oneself?

2.3 Public Performance in the ONLIFE Everywhere

Maybe ONLIFE has two dimensions, as suggested above. The first concerns selfpublication or reputation management. It is a type of social networking (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, YouTube, Training Intelligence Programs, Enhanced Reality), a pervasive ambience of sharing self-images, brief text, photo's, video's, location, 'likes', 'dislikes', sport's performance, health status or professional reputation. The second dimension of ONLIFE concerns the ubiquitous measurement, calculation and manipulation of the data that leak from everyday behaviours, and the way these behavioural data are used to predict, pre-empt and thus manage future states of mind, choices and decisions, for instance in the case of behavioural advertising, location based services, fraud detection, actuarial calculations, remote healthcare, neuromarketing or criminal profiling[2]. Both seem to draw individual 'users' into Arendt's 'the social'. 'Users' have become what she calls 'a society', an assembly of individuals that manage their reputation, while also being managed as a resource for government and the industry. In fact, the computational infrastructure employs behavioural traces as its cognitive resource.

The questions generated by all this focus, on what affordances the ONLIFE should develop to enable a shared, agonistically organised public space that allows a plurality of 'users' to develop a voice, to partake in democratic decision-making and to hold each other to account, while at the same time providing the 'users' with effective means to withdraw, to unplug, to delete and start over. This raises three additional inquiries. First, the question of how to protect 'users' against invisible manipulation (because of the hidden complexity), unfair exclusion (because of the lack of transparency that disables contestation), and undesirable exposure (because of the ubiquitous pressure to 'post' an update of one's where/ what/who-abouts)? Second, the question of how to empower Onlife inhabitants in a way that enables them to challenge the design of their world? Is this about renegotiating the social contract? Or is it about construction work; how to build an Onlife world that is not a global village, nor a walled garden, but an extended urbanity? Third, the question of how this connects to the dimension of agency that is emerging within the Onlife experience; how can inhabitants or visitors of the ONLIFE learn to guess how they are being anticipated?

2.4 A Plurality of Publics, a Choice of Exposure, a Place to Hide

In 1927 Dewey wrote The public and its problems. The book is an extended reply to Lippman's (1997) analysis of democratic government in the age of mass media, high tech instrumentation and societal complexity. I find his analysis and the normative position he takes on democratic practice highly relevant for our current enterprise. As Marres (2005) has demonstrated Dewey agrees with Lippman's diagnosis, but not with his cure. Whereas Lippman believes the only solution is technocratic government, Dewey argues for a new understanding of democracy. For a start, he reminds us that representative democracy (voting) is a matter of delegation, relieving people from the burden of governing themselves. Second, he believes that once people discover that their delegates are not doing a good job with regard to a specific issue, they will seek out their fellows and form a public around this issue. Interestingly, the formation of publics and issues is a matter of co-constitution: no issue, no public [and vice versa]. This leads Dewey to understand democracy as the process of simultaneously constructing publics and issues, whereby people regain a measure of control over issues their delegates forsake. Publics and issues are thus performed, constructed, fabricated–not given. Their articulation and their assemblage require hard work. There is not one—given—Public, but a multiplicity of publics that changes shape in relation to the issues they frame. And also, in relation to each other.

Dewey's publics differ from Arendt's public sphere. His publics are more empirical and contingent and they have less continuity. In fact a successful public will resolve its issue and cease to exist as such. However, both Dewey and Arendt's publics require individuals who take the risk of raising their voice, contesting common sense and—more importantly—initiating the construction of a new common sense around what they present as an issue. Dewey seems less interested in opposing 'the social' with 'the public'. His definition of democracy demonstrates a fundamental trust in the wisdom of crowds (to be distinguished from a naïve wisdom of 'the Crowd'). Like Mouffe (2000) in political theory and Rip (2003) in constructive Technology Assessment, Dewey trusts the outcome of agonistic decision-making processes. His publics are always under construction—they thrive on, contest and challenge whatever pretends to represent 'the social'. They ground a natality in the midst of 'the social', a possibility for radical reinvention of what is taken for granted.

What interests me here is how we—a public constituted around the issue of ONLIFE—can contribute to the design, the engineering, the construction of an ONLIFE that affords the formation and un-formation of publics, while protecting and cherishing the opacities of the individuals that make these publics. In fact I believe that the 2012 draft Regulation of Data Protection holds several gems that may actually provide stepping-stones to such an ONLIFE. In the third part of this contribution I venture into the radical choices it presents and the bridges it builds between legislation, architecture, social norms and market forces (Lessig 2006).

  • [1] I use capital 'ONLIFE' when speaking of the 'world' we inhabit (Onlife as a noun) and lower case 'Onlife' when using the term to describe attributes of our being (Onlife as an adverb or adjective).
  • [2] With the World Economic Forum (“Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class” 2011) we can distinguish between volunteered, observed and inferred data. Data-driven environments indeed thrive on the combination of provided, leaked and derived data. Consumers and citizens, however, are seldom aware of the leaked and derived data.
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