Discover more from New_ Public
📘 Book report on a new internet history
The sovereignty of our gilded online malls and the illusion of agency
💰 Recasting internet history in the context of commercialism
🙆🏻♀️ A nuanced, prescriptive, and bold analysis of social media
🏞 An essential read for those interested in flourishing digital public spaces
By calling them platforms, we’re giving them way too much credit for being open and neutral, as if they play “a supporting role, merely facilitating the interactions of others,” writes Tarnoff. “Their sovereignty over the spaces of our digital life, and their active role in ordering such spaces, is obscured.”
Tarnoff, the co-founder of Logic magazine and a contributor to publications like Jacobin and The Guardian, has written a history of the internet that is quite pointed but also brief, approachable, and easily read. Beginning with the infrastructure that makes the internet work, Tarnoff recontextualizes the internet in terms of its evolving commercialization over decades.
Continuing “up the stack” to internet suppliers, online retailers, and eventually, the apps of the gig economy and social media, Tarnoff builds his argument: our internet has reached a baroque, gilded age of monopolism, inequality, surveillance, and expensive and awful service.
Social media or online malls?
To Tarnoff, the idea that users of social media platforms (he prefers the term online malls) are self-organizing and in charge of their profiles is an illusion but an essential one, both to keep users engaged and for legal protections like Section 230. Tarnoff argues that freedom on social media is limited to “ways that are maximally legible to the automated systems that track and analyze [users], ultimately for the purpose of selling ads.” In other words, you’re free to express yourself, as long as your expression can be anonymized, packaged, and sold in aggregate.
As cynical as it is, there’s nothing revelatory about that claim. But Tarnoff impressed me with his nuanced analysis of disinformation, in which he unpacks widely understood and somewhat misguided common misperceptions. Mark Zuckerberg, he writes, has not built a mind-control machine. The idea that social media disinformation causes polarization “makes a number of questionable assumptions, and rests on an oversimplified, mechanistic model of how software and psychology and politics interact,” he writes. Tarnoff continues:
The internet does not brainwash users because brainwashing is a myth. The information that people encounter online matters, but its relationship with their beliefs is nonlinear: Dylann Roof did not [become] a neo-Nazi on the basis of a single Google search. Human beings are complicated and contradictory. So is the process whereby they acquire their ideological frames.
We may not be able to see into the black boxes of the algorithm or the human mind, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that publicly-traded American corporation Meta might find it in their interest to “accommodate right-wing propaganda networks, and their lucrative levels of engagement,” as Tarnoff puts it. Ultimately, his analysis is more Marxist than moralist: it’s not that Meta is evil, but rather that they are incentivized to participate in a terrible cycle. For Tarnoff, the only way to break the cycle is to entirely remove commerce from the equation.
New Brandeisians and anti-monopolists: potential solutions
Like New_ Public, Tarnoff calls for a new era of creativity and imagination. “We need more experiments,” he writes. “You can’t simply clone Facebook, place it under public or cooperative ownership, and expect substantially different results.” We emphatically agree with this point, and it’s why we enthusiastically host design sprints and constantly investigate different experiments for socializing on the internet.
Interestingly, Tarnoff cites the police and prison abolition movement as an inspiration for reforming the internet. In that movement, it’s not enough to call for the removal of police and the carceral state — they are also committed to imagining new institutions and strategies as replacements. However, it’s been decades since Angela Davis first started talking about prisons, and progress has been tantalizingly slow. The movement around digital public spaces has also grown slowly, but it’s undeniable that the energy for change is here now, and the urgency for dramatic reform may not last.
In search of specific ideas, Tarnoff turns to a few Friends of New_ Public. Safiya Umoja Noble, Darius Kazemi, and Joan Donovan suggest emboldening America’s local libraries and librarians. And New_ Public Advisory Board member Ethan Zuckerman wants an interconnected archipelago of community spaces:
Instead of Facebook, imagine millions of social media communities, each with their own rules and customs, and cultures. This is the vision of media scholar Ethan Zuckerman. These communities would be ‘plural in purpose’: they would host different kinds of interactions.
Like his recommendations for internet infrastructure de-privatization, Tarnoff suggests these smaller, local communities could be interoperable with each other where applicable and, through new laws, even interface with for-profit mega networks like Facebook.
Internet for the People is not a perfect book, but I appreciate its nuanced investigation of the internet, including social media. Tarnoff stays focused on America, which is sufficient for most of our purposes at New_ Public, but it would be fascinating to hear this story told from different perspectives and places. Unfortunately, he also avoids crypto and blockchain entirely, except for a few references to that cohort’s pet issues, like decentralization and data privacy. This feels like a strange omission in telling the story of the internet, but perhaps it is too early to see how crypto fits in with the rest.
As Tarnoff notes, most solutions to reigning in Big Tech focus on practical, sensible reforms, like changing the rules for companies and breaking up monopolies. But, unlike the Biden Administration, I appreciate that Tarnoff is not timid and suggests full-on de-privatization of the internet.
At one point in Tarnoff’s narrative, right before the US government — having financed and nurtured the internet with taxpayer dollars — gives up the internet for nothing to private industry, there is a fascinating vision of a path not taken:
Senator Daniel Inouye, who introduced a bill in 1994 that would have made telecom companies reserve up to 20 percent of their capacity for ‘public uses.’ This capacity would be considered ‘public property’—the telecoms would have no control over it. And it would be used to offer free access to qualifying organizations, such as libraries, nonprofits, and educational institutions, so long as they provided ‘educational, informational, cultural, civic or charitable services directly to the public without charge for such services.’ Such organizations would also receive funding to support their ability to provide these services.
Even back in 1994, Sen. Inouye only sought to retain one-fifth of the internet for public use. I’m 35, and I’m not sure I’ll even see that much of the internet become flourishing digital public spaces in my lifetime. But I hope this book may start to open the door, just a crack, in terms of what Americans consider possible.
— Josh Kramer
If you’ve read the book, please share your insights and what stood out most to you as an “Aha” moment.
The New_ Public team continues to grow. Welcome aboard, Min Li & Ravon!
Senior Product Director | Min Li Chan
I’m thrilled to be joining New_ Public as Senior Product Director. When I first heard about New_ Public, I was drawn, foremost, to its founding hypotheses: that in seeking to re-envision and architect digital spaces that center on public good rather than privatized gain, we can learn from a millennia-spanning body of knowledge and practices on how cities and communities have built and stewarded flourishing civic spaces—like parks, plazas, and libraries—in the physical world. I’m excited to bring my capacities as both a technologist and an essayist to New_ Public’s efforts. As a technologist, I’ve worked for over fifteen years on building, launching, or scaling speculative technologies that straddle physical and virtual worlds, from self-driving cars to tools for citizen cartography, as well as technical platforms with roots in place-based metaphors, like web browsers and desktop operating systems. And as an essayist, I’ve sought to attend closely to our technological present, both its moral contradictions and its lyrical, humane possibilities.
Many years ago, I heard an interview with the Australian novelist Gail Jones, in which she talks about tuning into the psychogeography of a built environment as a writer and a participant in civic life. Jones describes psychogeography as “the idea that we must walk around our own place with an active intelligence and a degree of radical attention to what is there … We must look at its shapes, at its motions, attend to its sounds, corridors between spaces, the unexpected things looming up or falling away as we turn a corner.” The shapes, motions, sounds, and shadows Jones tracks are not only spatial or architectural but also social and political, seemingly intangible atmospheres. How have effaced histories or ongoing, invisible forces of inequity shaped a place and the way it holds and serves the human relationships and interactions contained with it? How might we intervene in such a space? Considering and designing a digital space’s psychogeography is one of many examples of fruitful provocation that I hope to engage in, in our product work at New_ Public.
You can reach me at email@example.com if you’d like to connect.
— Min Li Chan
Community Programs Manager | Ravon Ruffin
I joined New_ Public as Community Programs Manager to build synergy among others reimagining digital public spaces that are healthy, flourishing, and joyful. I look forward to dreaming of new worlds that prioritize collective care, kindness, and social justice with New_ Public.
As an anthropologist, strategist, and community designer, I am deeply fascinated by people, our relationships with space, and what they can tell us about how we relate to each other. For much of my career, I’ve focused on museums in their capacity to be innovative thinkers behind urban sustainability, public education, and social justice. I carried those interests toward the digital as another space to ask, What communities already exist here? How can our institutions be a resource for them to thrive and serve?
New_ Public’s framework for understanding the online as a digital public space is what first drew my attention and excited me. This reframe upends passive notions of user interactions online to expose the ways we all have an active role in making the internet every day.
I’m excited to join New_ Public in growing digital gardens that inspire a culture of learning within a nurturing ecosystem and maintain the criticality of utopian visions for digital futures embedded in white supremacy. Digital gardens invite us to be tender, embrace what will inevitably be messy, and move at the speed of trust.
Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re gathering at Unfinished Live this week
The New_ Public team is looking forward to gathering in person at Unfinished Live. The event brings the community of leading experts and engaged citizens together to exchange ideas and shape what’s next for our collective digital future. The program is packed with big-name interviews, workshops, masterclasses, live podcasts, immersive art exhibits, and more; there really is something for everyone.
The speaker lineup includes Cory Doctorow, Safiya Noble, Tristan Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Frances Haugen, Baratunde Thurston, Danielle Allen, and our very own Deepti Doshi and Eli Pariser, just to name a few.
The event is almost sold out, but we have a special discount for our readers to participate in DAY 2 [Friday, 9/23] for $49. This is a $100 discount from the $149 ticket price online. For tickets, visit live.unfinished.com and enter code DAYTWO49 (select a Day 2 ticket, and the discount will be applied at checkout).
If you are in NYC - please join us! We want to meet you and exchange ideas on building a better digital future together.
Kernel Magazine Second Edition: It’s here! Kernal magazine’s 164-page print second edition is now available. Last year’s edition asked, “Where do we go from here?” This year’s edition points us practically forward, posing, “How do we get there?” Editor Emily Liu’s opening line, “We are at the beginning of history,” places our current challenges against 200,00 years of human history, in which the 33-year-old Web is a mere protozoan. Kernal, published by Reboothq, reimagines a techno-optimistic responsible future. The issue is packed with creative, thought-provoking ideas, essays, and art. You can read a few articles online but isn’t so much more satisfying to support their work by tearing open an envelope, bending back the magazine cover, and curling up for inspiration.
An Intergenerational Teach-in: The Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) newsletter crew is facilitating a unique intergenerational teach-in among fellow workers. Over the past year, they’ve assembled a community of elders who were active decades ago in groups like the IBM Black Workers Alliance, Computer People for Peace, Polaroid workers against apartheid, and workers organizing at National Semiconductor. On October 19-21, 2022, they’re hosting their first [virtual] teach-in to invite these workers in community with younger organizers to learn from and support one another. As TWC notes, “Workers in tech have always been historical actors, but learning from history in a fast-paced industry can be challenging – even the past few years can feel inaccessible.” Register here to participate.
Technology Rituals in a Liturgical Framing: We’re equally as obsessed with technology hacks and rituals as we are with rituals for disconnecting and slowing down. So, we were intrigued by The Convivial Society’s liturgical framing of the “formative power of the practices, habits, and rhythms that emerge from our use of certain technologies, hour by hour, day by day, month after month, year in and year out.” An intriguing image to pique your interest before clicking over is L. M. Sacasas’s image of a person who handles their cellphone like many handle their rosary beads. What can we learn from ecclesiastical [or any faith rituals to help us build healthy digital public spaces?
Contributing Writers: We continue to be inspired by your perspectives on building healthy digital public spaces, and we want to bring your viewpoints and ideas to our broader community. If you are interested in becoming a contributing writer in one of our upcoming issues, please fill out this form, and we will be in touch if we feel there is a fit!
The Community Corkboard is our place to help spread the word about all the exciting projects the digital healthy spaces community is working on. Do you have an upcoming event or happening you would like us to list on the Corkboard?
🧶 Rummaging for fall sweaters
New_ Public 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.