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2003.12.21

The Internet as Public Space

Why do we go into public space? Why leave our houses and apartments? Often we go for commerce, to make money and spend money; we go to work, we go to shop and eat and play. Public space lies between us and where we want to be -- it's a transitional zone, a transit zone, where we walk and drive and ride subways and wait for airplanes. We go for information, to libraries, we go for entertainment and art, to museums and theaters, We go to be outside, to parks and playgrounds and even just sidewalks. We go for exercise and air, and a sense of space, something larger than our own rooms.

And we go to see other people, to be seen by them, to be in public. Some places exist almost purely as gathering points - cafes, bars and clubs. You're in them as much for the other people as for any other reason -- it's easier and cheaper to drink coffee or beer at home. Public space is space we have in common, space we use to commune with one another.

Howard Besser (in an interesting paper on the shrinking of truly public space online and in the real world) says: "Historically, the public spaces of cities have been centers of diversity. Even when housing was segregated along class or ethnic lines, public spaces were where people from all kinds of different backgrounds were exposed to each other. City streets, parks, and public transportation were melting pots of cultural differences, places where one would encounter people who dressed and spoke differently, hear people expressing opinions that one would never hear amongst their "peers", see people engaged in activities one had never seen before....Public spaces are important for diversity and free speech, as well as for the exchange of ideas. The exposure to differences that takes place there helps new ideas germinate. Public spaces are important to the creative process."

Working on the Free Biennial and Free Manifesta, two projects which were intended to take place in public space, I defined "public space" very broadly -- as "anywhere a stranger can enter." This included commercial spaces, even though they are of course more restricted than municipal spaces (many of our most important experiences of being in public happen in places that are owned by somebody). And it also included communication networks like the telephone, broadcast airwaves, and the internet.

As a public space, the internet has interesting strengths and weaknesses. Certainly the sheer power of its interconnections is amazing. You, the stranger, can enter almost any space, virtually as soon as you know it exists. You are completely unconstrained by geography, and have no fear of getting funny looks when you walk in wearing the wrong clothes. As soon as a site is put on the internet it becomes public unless it is walled off deliberately. Because of this there is an unprecedented proliferation of public spaces, a boomtown getting bigger every hour.

But when you step outside your door on the internet, you are largely unseen. Yes, you accept cookies, you show in statistics, you leave traces, but for the most part you pass through the public spaces online as a ghost, an almost invisible spectator. Despite the cheerful "Hi Sal!" and "Welcome Back!" of sites where you are a regular customer, the illusion that you are known in any personal way is thin: when you are "recognized" it is by an algorithm, at most, by an organization, almost never by a person. This, I think, is one reason the experience of being online feels so much more abstract than the experience of walking through a city.

When I think of walking in a city, what comes to mind is one of my most familiar paths, from my doorstep up Mulberry street across Houston and up Lafayette. There's something about this walk that never fails to engage me, to make me feel the cityness of the city. The light falls in changing patterns on the buildings, and sometimes everything feels superlit with an intense clarity, edged with a not quite visible glow. There are always strange (often unpleasant) smells behind the Puck building where the caterers slosh some of the leftovers of each night's party food in puddles of peculiar colors sometimes crowned with mounds of shining ice cubes. There is the suddenness of the traffic jockying aggressively along Houston street, and the sheer scale of the billboards that rise above it. Then somehow another quiet block of Mulberry is tucked in, ending in a funny triangular building with a narrow point that once housed t-shirts and used blue jeans and now holds a tiny cafe whose only seats are benches around trees on the sidewalk. From there, Lafayette is an ever changing display of half-illegal street posters, a wide street that is often empty of cars so you can stroll across it whenever you like. There's a tiny store, a jumble of amateur art and old guitars and amps, which unfolds itself into the sidewalk by day (the owner and a few guys hanging out talking and smoking and fooling around with the guitars all afternoon and into dusk) and then at night folds itself inwards like a sea creature, impossibly jammed into a room so packed there's not an inch of space for a person to walk in. Then the hopeful grandeur of the public theater and mystery of the colonnade across from it, and you find yourself in Astor place with its busy confluence of social types criss crossing from Broadway into the East Village.

Can we think of the internet as a kind of city? There are certain things we can expect of a physical city when we're walking in it. A city is always rich in surprises and juxtapositions, it is always changing. Our experience of it is social -- we're looking at other people and we're being looked at, hair, clothes, interactions, the looks on faces. Smell, sound, touch, kinesthetic scale and motion are as much apart of our walk as seeing is.

The internet has some of these qualities -- the sense of surprise and juxtaposition in particular is not all that hard to come by. The quality of being an individual among other individuals is growing, in particular through the explosion of blogs with their technologies for comments and trackbacks. But the real feeling of cruising around on the internet is much more abstract than walking the streets of the city. Its psychogeography seems thin and constrained, more like Debord's spectacle than his situation.

Greg Van Alstyn comments in his essay "Cyberspace and the Lonely Crowd" "Cyberspace is supposed to be about interactivity, connectivity and community. Yet... it is not about connection at all -- paradoxically, it is about separation" He goes on to explain, "When we are enthralled in any immersive virtual environment, the body seems to become mere baggage (or "meat"). Any synthetic illusion which is sufficiently well resolved to convince or even confuse the senses can capture our undivided attention. So why should we not try to pack up and move in? If perception is constructed, then there is no reason to privilege the "real" -- there is no "real" at all."

But for those of us who do remain interested in realness, what are the, then, any possibilities for a "real" experience of cyberspace, of the internet? To become a pyschogeographer of the internet is to seek out those aspects of it which are most surprising and alive -- to practice the internet dérive, to open yourself to strange encounters with individuals, to throw off your anonymity and wander the communities where someone can see you or know you, to participate in the great agoras of ebay, slashdot, and the blogiverse.

Next week, stay tuned as we experiment with an internet dérive.

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Comments

I think a certain amount of the public vs. private is the definition of "space". If "cyberspace" is understood as being the same realm as "space", then the internet has vast quantities of public space. This would allow for a derive that is very similar to a physical derive, yet the internet derive would become an immediate world walk rather than a patch in a city.
I guess I have questions about the understanding of the spaces in which we are intrested in. Are the spaces places, or are spaces simply the perception of the creator? If the spaces have to be places, then I would disagree with the notion of an internet derive. If a space is understood as an area that anyone can access on any cognitive level, then the internet is a prime place for a derive, albeit a derive without ever coming in contact with another physical being.

Posted by: J Gabriel Lloyd | Dec 27, 2003 2:57:04 PM

In response to J Gabriel, any place where people can meet whether it be through the internet or on a street, is public space. Whether the internet fulfills the key roles of public space especially for children (democracy, diversity, interaction) is something that i am currently researching. In my opinion, spaces do not have to be places, and spaces are more definite by the perception of the users (not necessarily the creator). For example, recently i researched a "space" in my hometown. It was a carpark for Centrelink workers, but by night a group of young people with cars used it as a space of social interaction. In this case, the creator was the city council who made the carpark and perceived it as a carpark, however the young people perceived and identified this 'place' as a space for interaction. Am i on the right track to think that 'spaces' are derived from 'places' through a cognitive level and therefore the physical element of space is not as a bigger of an issue as we may perceive it to be?

I am currently studying a unit on space at university and came across this page for an assignment on public space practice issues in relation to young children on virtual space. If anyone has any suggestions, please please please email me!

Posted by: Sophia Lowe | Oct 16, 2004 1:10:27 AM

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