Over the last few weeks, we at New_ Public have been meeting to think together through a series called “Show and Tell”, where each team member presents an article to dissect. The group exploration takes turns between heady topics and pop culture but the true emphasis is to see an angle or issue from many perspectives. We each bring so much valuable knowledge from our individual upbringing, education, location, and interest and we probe each other when new virtues or ideas come about.
We have discussed how walled gardens can be translated to online spaces and how context and privilege play a role in how we expect community to come together. There’s been heated debate about the problems of justice and the means for building democracy and there’ve been tender moments where our conversations have conjured up nostalgia for Internet 1.0.
The hour we spend posing questions and thinking about futurism vs. activism has quickly become our favorite activity as a team. We walk away both satiated with new learnings and perplexed with bigger socio-technological challenges for humanity. We thought we would share the format with you and see what it brings up for you. We invite you to share your responses, in a comment on Substack, or with us on Twitter.
Show and Tell
From the article: “The election of Donald Trump in 2016 triggered a global reckoning over the power that tech platforms have to spread misinformation and empower right-wing authoritarians. Since Joe Biden took office, I’ve been eager to see how the broader conversation around tech and society would change. And just a few months in, it’s clear that the prevailing narrative has flipped: the big story is no longer about what Big Tech is leaving up — it’s about what the platforms are taking down.”
Why I chose this: As a member of the New_ Public team, I believe deeply in our vision for public digital spaces, but with an understanding of the fragility of democrattic norms in the US and beyond. I’m interested in questions around the misuse of platforms in the face of authoritarian rule.
Question I pose: What are considerations for designing a digital space that allow for equitable protest and debate?
Quotes from the article: “The Great Online Game is an infinite video game that plays out constantly across the internet. It uses many of the mechanics of a video game, but removes the boundaries. People who play the Great Online Game rack up points, skills, and attributes that they can apply across their digital and physical lives. The Game rewards community and cooperation over individualism and competition. You get points for being curious, sharing, and helping with no expectation of reciprocation.”
Why I chose this: When I first read this newsletter, I was overcome with cynicism and wondered if this was old-fashioned American hucksterism, dressed up with the newfangled prosperity gospel found in the contemporary tech industry. But then I saw optimism and interest in community-building and karmic kindness.
Question I pose: Is this my techno-libertarian, Randian nightmare? Blog-era nostalgia for cooperation and community? A little bit of both?
Quotes from the article:“Polarization is not the only or even the primary thing we should worry about when discussing how to change or regulate tech. And, any concern with polarization must proceed from the recognition that deep inequities structure American society. As Juliet Hooker has argued, “whites tend not to recognize such inequalities as problems of justice and therefore to perceive the demands of nonwhites for redress as the main threats to solidarity.”
Why I chose this: I’ve wondered for a while about using “polarization” to describe the primary political problem in the United States. It suggests a level of political symmetry where none exists. As Talia and I argue in our Signals, dehumanization is a much more critical thing to focus on than polarization and solving for “humanization” might look different than solving for “depolarization.”
Question I pose: Thinking about not just the United States but countries around the world, is “democratization” really what we want to solve for (rather than “depolarization”)?
Quotes from the article:“An internal petition signed by 640 Amazon tech and corporate employees is asking the company to raise its emissions goals and address the disproportionate environmental harms its logistics empire leaves on Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant neighborhoods where its warehouses are often concentrated. It was the first time workers in the technology industry used their position as owners of company stock to urge their employer to change its business practices.”
Why I chose this: This article brings attention to the fact that tech workers are looking at their rights collectively and are looking to initiate/demand the systemic change they want to see in their communities.
Question I pose: We often consider the online harm of the tech itself but less about the scrawl associated with the physical headquarters, plants, and distribution centers. Do the same design justice principles apply to those build outs?
Quotes from the article: “[Elinor] Ostrom’s conclusions have faced stubborn resistance. During the early years of her career, colleagues criticized her for spending too much time studying the differences among systems and too little time looking for a unifying theory. ‘When someone told you that your work was “too complex”, that was meant as an insult,’ she recalled.”
Why I chose the article: Elinor Ostrom’s principles on how to manage a commons are still as relevant as ever. Her work has not triumphed over the myth of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — a myth that is not only cynical, but false, and whose author’s views revealed themselves to be increasingly racist. We need to court complexity, and we need ways of telling complex narratives so that they can be as “grabbable” as more deceivingly simple ones.
Question I pose: How can complex narratives replace the lure of outdated and pernicious stories, especially for architects of digital futures who are looking for principles to inform how we build for publics?
From the article: “Unlike kites, which date back thousands of years, computers with the internet are relatively young technologies which (I think) desperately need further evolution in their design. Another design philosophy I reference often is called ‘calm technology.’ It declares calmness the fundamental challenge for all computational design of this era.”
Why I chose this: This interactive video piece, by artist Laurel Schwulst is a real-time, meditative guide that brings to mind an intimate, low-key solo theater show. You’ll relish the atmosphere, as well as the digressions into topics like mise en place and aeolian harps. Schwulst reminiscences about what the wind can teach us about the internet, as in the excerpt above. Calm technology is fascinating and jives well with our Signals research.
Question I pose: My favorite mostly-calm technology might be my hand-me-down first gen Kindle — simple and functional. What’s yours? How does it make you feel?
Quotes from the article: “To consider the history of computing through the lens of computer pain is to center bodies, users, and actions over and above hardware, software, and inventors. This perspective demands computer history to engage with a world beyond the charismatic object of computers themselves, with material culture, with design history, with workplace ethnography, with leisure studies.”
Why I chose this: I am fascinated by the study of cultural behaviors associated with technology as they relate to our physical evolution as humans: the computer neck, scroll thumbs, and screen time.
Question I pose: So often our queries or conversations are about the challenges of tech use — how we spend our free time — without deep acknowledgement of the change of our physical makeup. If we think about safe digital spaces, what kind of investigation should we be committed to in terms of bodies, labor, and plain evolution?
From the article:“But clear evidence doesn’t easily overturn tradition or overcome entrenched feelings and egos. John Snow, often credited as the first scientific epidemiologist, showed that a contaminated well was responsible for a 1854 London cholera epidemic by removing the suspected pump’s handle and documenting how the cases plummeted afterward. Many other scientists and officials wouldn’t believe him for 12 years, when the link to a water source showed up again and became harder to deny. (He died years earlier.)”
Why I chose it: I suppose a theme is forming in the two links of mine that we discussed, ha! Over and over, we see a fundamental misunderstanding of why people believe in ideas and an over reliance on things being “evidence-based” (necessary but not sufficient). While the focus of this inquiry has been trained on adherents of conspiracy theories, we don’t often think of this issue as plaguing scientists, epidemiologists, etc. It does.
Question I pose: Doubting expertise is tricky terrain, yet updating erroneous theories, whether they be 100 years old, or more recent, is an important function of public health. What kind of infrastructure of trust is needed to have these vital conversations and disseminate whatever new understanding they yield to a broader public without causing people to further mistrust institutions?
From the article: “My in-laws have a home in southern Maine. The area has its own vernacular, but there are the same boring lawns, the same disregard for material, and the same obsession with scale. The familiar yet unspoken aesthetic clause in the social contract. Here, “tending one’s garden” is not selfish but rather a duty performed for the benefit of the collective, a little effort that each citizen pitches in to keep the neighborhood beautiful. After a decade of city life: how could cultural cohesion be powerful enough to so rigidly define what counts as acceptable behavior?”
Why I chose this: When we think about digital public spaces, we use the spatial metaphor of cities to translate how we've theorized, understood, and approached congregational life. This essay expands the metaphor to think about how we define collective norms and friction.
Question I pose: What might acceptable norms look like in our digital cities? What is the undesirable and who and how do we determine what that is?
From the article: Tressie McMillan Cottom: We [often] think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.
Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.”
Why I chose this: I’m not a huge podcast listener, but this is an extraordinarily rich conversation that spans from media criticism, to social status, to personal history without missing a beat. I think about pieces of it daily.
Question I pose: Dr.McMillan Cottom argues, “I don’t think we have the luxury right now of scale and efficiency. We don’t have a culture right now for scale and efficiency that can be productive. That’s for a culture that mostly agrees on who and what it is mostly functioning, the way most people need it to function for a good life.” What might a less efficiency-oriented approach to online spaces look like?
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The New_ Public team
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.