For those of us who care about pluralism and democracy, this has been a distressing week. In the U.S., there are few public spaces more loaded with symbolic meaning than the Capitol Building. To see it marauded by an angry, armed mob is an assault not just on the building or the people protecting it but on what it represents: a building where “we the people,” ALL of us, rule.
This idea has always been more of an aspiration than a reality: for a large part of United States history, Black people, Native Americans, and women (among others) haven’t been able to vote at all, and even today it’s far harder than it should be for many communities to make their voices heard. But it’s an aspiration worth holding on to, and rededicating ourselves to in light of last week’s events.
At New_ Public, our focus is on one corner of this challenge — the piece that addresses how digital spaces might help weave, rather than tear, the social fabric. With humility, we recognize the deep dynamics at work in what happened, including the legacy of American slavery and the Civil War. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that men stormed the Capitol carrying the Confederate flag. But we believe (as Twitter and Facebook have now accepted) that the rules, norms, governance, and design features of our social platforms play a major role in what happened as well.
That’s why in addition to our anger and sorrow, we also feel hope and inspiration about the conversation we’re going to have next week at the New_ Public Festival. Whether we can build better digital spaces isn’t the only big question at this time, but it’s definitely one critical one — and we couldn’t be more excited about the group of people coming together in discussion. If you have ideas to debate, conversations to spark, join us next week.
In this week’s newsletter, we spotlight what our festival speakers, interview our co-founder Talia Stroud from the University of Texas at Austin, and share what our contributing editors are reading.
Festival Hive Mind
We are so honored by the brain power that makes up our New_ Public festival line-up. Coming off a hard year like 2020, it feels like commemorating all the good we do collectively is what we SHOULD be doing. We don’t know if Twitter is collective intelligence per se, but below we’ve linked the list of speakers to their recent tweets. We take you into the hive mind of the community we’ve gathered for our festival. They will take us on a journey through the lessons, promise, and futures of public life:
Aaron Z. Lewis, Product designer and writer
Anasuya Sengupta, Poet, author, and co-founder of WhoseKnowledge.org
Andrew Slack, Speaker, writer, actor, comedian
Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform author, documentarian, and political organizer
Audrey Tang, Taiwanese free software programmer and Taiwan's Digital Minister
Brenda Laurel, Video game designer, researcher, and author
Coney, Interactive theater makers
Cory Doctorow, Special Advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and author of Attack Surface
Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and author of Difference Without Domination
Darius Kazemi, Computer programmer and artist
Deb Roy, Cortico founder and MIT Media Lab Executive Director
Devon Zuegel, Director of Product at GitHub
Dialup, Artist-made app by Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins
Esra'a Al Shafei, Bahraini human rights activist and founder of Majal.org
Ethan Zuckerman, founder of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Evan Henshaw-Plath, Technologist, CEO at Planetary
Eve Pearlman, Journalistic innovator and co-founder of Spaceship Media
Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Founder and former director of the Laboratorio para la Ciudad, and director of Experimentalista, a new urban+creative studio
Geert-Jan Bogaerts, initiator of the PublicSpaces coalition and head of innovation at VPRO
Glen Weyl, Social technologist, Microsoft advisor and founder of the RadicalxChange Foundation.
Golda Velez, Software engineer
John Samples, VP, Cato Institute and FB Oversight Board member
Katherine Maher, CEO of Wikimedia
Konstantinos Dimopoulos, game urbanist, designer, and researcher; author of Virtual Cities
Krista Tippett, Journalist, author, and creator of On Being
Lauren Lee McCarthy, Artist and open source contributor
Lars Jan, Artistic director of Early Morning Opera
Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford
Madebo Fatunde, Strategist, writer, and Guild For Future Architects founding member
Michael Wood-Lewis, Co-founder Front Porch Forum
Mona Sloane, Principal Investigator for Terra Incognita; NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology
Nathan Matias, Assistant professor at Cornell University, founder of the Citizens and Technology Lab (CATLab)
Panayotis Antoniadis, Senior researcher, Co-founder NetHood Zurich
Philip Rosedale, Founder of Linden Labs (host of Second Life) and HighFidelity
Pia Mancini, Co-founder of Open Collective
Rachel Coldicutt, Community technology strategist at Careful Industries
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford
Rodrigo Ochigame, Researcher at MIT
Safiya Noble, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry
Sara Hendren, Artist, design researcher, and Professor at Olin College of Engineering
Stephanie Dinkins, Transdisciplinary artist creating art about AI that intersects race, gender, and history
Tracy Chou, Software engineer, CEO at Block Party
Tricia Wang, global tech ethnographer and founder of Sudden Compass
Tristan Harris, Co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology
Xiaowei Wang, Artist, coder, author of BlockChain Chicken Farm, Creative Director of Logic magazine
Five Minutes with Civic Signals co-founder Talia Stroud
As we look forward to the launch of our very own Signals at our festival this week, we took a moment to talk about the future of building flourishing digital spaces with our co-founder, Talia Stroud. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
New_ Public: How should one think of community in public digital space, as we shift our focus from user- to public-centered design?
Talia Stroud: Tech platforms have been focused on the user experience [online] for some time. One part of this is asking: How do I get you to stay on the site longer? This is valuable because it has revenue implications. A/B testing — which is all the rage and allows companies to figure out how to increase time on site — is really easy to do. I think what we're trying to say is that there's another way to think about user experience online. We could think about people in communities, people in societies, and publics where people come together. We can think about maximizing things not for one atomistic unit, but for a collective. That's a different way of thinking about the world. We want to ask: How can we enable people to act together to have a good collective experience?
Scholars/philosophers have been thinking about how people come together for millennia. Why do we still maintain a long view for considering how we view public-centered societal metrics?
There are a lot of reasons that this is not something that changes overnight. These (metrics) are harder to measure. That's not to say that there hasn't been great progress made on a subset of them, but it often hasn't been in the context of social media, messaging apps, search engines, or other platforms.
It’s also the case that there are adversarial moves that could be made. Not everyone wants to work towards the same things. There are foreign interests, for example, that would like to see countries move in the opposite direction. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game, and will need to evolve as we think through how you build toward a flourishing digital space. It's not like one day, we'll all wake up and say, “Oh, great, we built it. Let's go home.” This is going to be an ongoing, evolving scenario.
At Civic Signals, we talk about creating a flourishing space. What does that look like?
If I were to envision a space where communities can come together, and we could do good things as a group, it would have those [14 Signal] attributes. It would make people feel welcome. It would help them to understand one another and the world in which we live. It would allow them to connect — even across lines of difference. And it would provide the mechanisms that allow them to act. These are the building blocks that make up the Signals, and I hope that they are a useful starting point for thinking about what flourishing spaces need to have.
📖What We Are Reading
On a regular basis, we will be asking our contributing editors to share which books, journals, magazines, or formative research papers inform their work right now. This week Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist and author, shares what is on his desk:
Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, 1934. The first and still best analysis of the history of technology and its impact on society, also accurately predicts the growing cleft between city folk and country folk in America.
Staying with the Trouble by Donna J. Haraway, 2016. Haraway, who wrote the classic Cyborg Manifesto, is suggesting we change the way we humans relate to the non-human entities and elements of our environment. It's making me imagine a civics that goes beyond people.
“E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty‐first Century," Robert Putnam's essay based on his lecture of 2006 about some shocking, counterintuitive, and even anti-liberal observations on way that "immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital." He's suggesting that ethnic diversity is not necessarily a civic strength. I don't want this to be the case, but respect Putnam's work and feel obligated to evaluate this 2006 study.
Omniviolence eats the world through autonomous networks. (Future of Belonging)
The Alphabet Workers Union— open to all employees at Google and Alphabet, including temps, vendors, and contractors— is the first union at a major tech company. (Los Angeles Times)
To thrive, our democracy needs digital public infrastructure to build online versions of libraries, parks, and other public spaces. (Politico)
🏙Offline: Design Ideas from Cities
The future of cities is walkable, healthy, resilient places. (Fast Company)
Singapore successfully used technology to track and trace Covid-19 cases, but privacy advocates worry about the long-term consequence of surveillance. (Rest of World)
The Protector Coalition is a non-partisan, non-profit coalition teaming up with universities, organizations, and the media to model and normalize safe covid behavior in content. (Cultique)
Looking forward to, perhaps, seeing you online at our festival,
The New_ Public team
Branding by Akufen
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.