🔮Provocations for a Better Future

How to encapsulate 3 days of public-ness?

On the first day of our New_ Public Festival, the political scientist Danielle Allen asked, Why are some infrastructural efforts going so badly wrong with regards to difference while others go right and what learnings can we take into the digital space? In this week of the Great Deplatforming, it seems like a critical question to answer. 

Over the course of the festival’s three days, we saw an answer to Allen’s question emerge: There can be no universal perfect space for everyone, but there are situated, human-scale digital spaces that can do the social-fabric-weaving work that physical public spaces do. For many of us, the festival felt like one of them. 

Festival participants — entrepreneurs, designers, product managers, programmers, CEOs, non-profit directors, digital policy experts, graduate students, and more — hailed from around the world including Dubai, Taiwan, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. We continued to mull over the virtues of difference. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but as a whole we were respectful of each other’s viewpoints. 

From that first conversation we broke off into many others, from panel discussions and Discord debates to Miro group think sessions, and Dialup phone calls with strangers. Such varied and spirited discourse is an important exchange to develop new frameworks and ethics for how we want to show up in a digital world. 

We didn’t always agree or come to consensus on issues and we certainly did not arrive at immediate solutions, but we walked away with seeds to plant within our own organizations, localities, and industries. 

This newsletter serves as a resource to find some of the  sprouts of imagination that emerged. Tim McCormick has created a crowd-sourced document to catch the musings and tensions of the festival here. And stay tuned for a broader Discord space for New_ Public newsletter readers to be launched in the near future as well. 

We’ll be sharing some of the highlights from the festival over the next few newsletters. Here’s a start:


Of all of the conversations that were had, these 15 round table provocations — prompted by leaders in various disciples of tech, policy, and design — encapsulated the free-thinking, generative, problem-solving we are looking to stir.

1. Data isn't just something that follows us around, it's us.
-Tricia Wang, Global tech ethnographer and founder of Sudden Compass

2. What did 2020 teach you about your uncertainty microbiome? What new cravings and intolerances have you developed?
-Madebo Fatunde, Strategist, writer, and Guild For Future Architects founding member

3. The future of our (digital/hybrid) public lives is pluralistic.
- Cory Doctorow, Special Advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and author of Attack Surface

4. Can we occupy technology with love?
-Rachel Coldicutt, Community technology strategist at Careful Industries 

5. The proverbial Cloud of the Internet is the ruling empire that rises above all others: how do we mitigate the perils and maximize the promise of this brave new world?
-Andrew Slack, Speaker, writer, actor, comedian 

6. Digital public space amplifies the inequities of physical public space.
- Mona Sloane, Principal Investigator for Terra Incognita; NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology 

7. What would it look like if there were medics on the battlefield of the information wars? -Aaron Z Lewis, Product designer and writer 

8. Can we design for safe serendipity in digitized physical spaces?
- Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford 

9. What would public-interest search engines look like?
-Rodrigo Ochigame, Researcher at MIT 

10. Process > Product. It’s how we build not what we build.
-Mara Zepeda, Managing Director of Zebra Unite

11. Good online places do not hang from the Cloud, they grow from the ground.
- Panayotis Antoniadis, Senior researcher, Co-founder NetHood Zurich

12. What if the future of our public lives online integrated congestion pricing in more contexts?
-Devon Zuegel, Director of Product at GitHub

13. What does community accountability really look like online?
-Xiaowei Wang, Artist, coder, author of BlockChain Chicken Farm, Creative Director of Logic magazine

14. Is an information system driven by the virality of user-generated content fundamentally compatible with a high-functioning democracy? 
-Tristan Harris, Co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology 

15. What if we used our own data to fight back? 
-Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform author, documentarian, and political organizer

We’d like to hear which of these provocations speak to you!

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The Civic Signals Are Here!

In the session, What flourishing online spaces have in common, our co-founders Talia Stroud and Eli Pariser released the Civic Signals, the culmination of a two-year research effort. Through YouGov, with funding from the Omidyar Network, Civic Signals conducted a survey in 20 countries and with over 20,000 people. We analyzed trends among superusers of various digital platforms and followed up with focus group research to find the patterns, values, and virtues we could agree upon that were essential to building flourishing digital public spaces. 

This work resulted in 14 white papers to be used as a tool kit. Because it’s time for a bolder public imagination for the Internet, all the research, methodologies, and interactive guides are now available on newpublic.org/signals to be downloaded.

Glimpses of Our Digital Public Futures

In this showcase, we heard from nine founders, developers, or designers who are bringing concepts of public-ness to life. It was fun and inspiring to hear about their communities, designs, and how they can be models for the future:

Darius Kazemi, Internet artist and programmer, started Runyourown.social as a guide to help programmers create and run their own small scale social network, with principles steeped in community building. Kazemi said he wanted to make places that are good and actively pleasurable to be in. “I want to have a nice time on the Internet with my friends,” he added.

Evan Henshaw-Plath, also known as Rabble, is a technologist and the CEO at Planetary, which just launched in the App Store. Planetary is an offline decentralized network built on values like respecting user privacy, resisting abuse or harassment, and focused on serving local communities. Speaking about how we got to where we are in social media, Rabble said, “we stumbled into the fact that there's a lot of money to be made on this surveillance model of social media, and that’s fine, but it’s problematic.”

Golda Velez is a software engineer and core member of Twitter's Bluesky initiative, a small team developing an open decentralized standard for social media. Velez is optimistic about the application. “There’s so much more creativity that could happen,” she said.

Esra'a Al Shafei is a Bahraini human rights activist and founder of Majal.org, a network of digital platforms for marginalized voices. Majal’s premise is based on giving freedom of expression and access to information to stigmatized communities in the Middle East and North Africa. Al Shafei appeared anonymously, without visuals, out of concern for her safety. 

Tracy Chou is a software engineer and CEO of Block Party, an anti-harassment tool to filter or mute unwanted content on social media. Chou stressed that while we are building the next generation of digital public spaces, “we need to provide tools for users right now to mitigate immediate pain and danger.”

Deb Roy, Cortico founder and MIT Media Lab Executive Director, launched the Local Voices Network in Madison, Wisconsin. The physical-digital network centers under-heard voices in the local community for healthier public dialogue. LVN hosts conversations in community centers and libraries around a digital hearth that records the conversation and pollinates the discussion online. LVN worked with its city to search for and hire a new police chief using the platform. Roy announced a new Center for Constructive Communication at the festival.

Michael Wood-Lewis is co-founder of Front Porch Forum, a free-community building forum for neighbors and neighborhoods in Vermont and parts of New York. The once-daily community content structure with human editors sets the tone. “There is no anonymity,” said Wood-Lewis. “It’s like showing up to a block party with your name tag on.”

Pia Mancini is co-founder of Open Collective and The Democracy Earth Foundation. Open Collective helps collaborative groups collect and spend money more transparently with an open source system. Mancini talked about how mutual aid groups and other communities around the world have used Open Collective to raise essential funds during the coronavirus pandemic.

Geert-Jan Bogaerts is initiator of the PublicSpaces coalition and head of innovation at VPRO in the Netherlands. PublicSpaces is developing a software ecosystem that validates the code and tooling of a website to mark it with a badge when it is beneficial to the public per the coalition’s values. Bogaerts talked about how this coalition of Dutch public organizations and institutions is promoting openness and autonomy for an ethically-sound Internet.

Missed Connection à la Dialup

Over the three evenings of the festival, participants signed up for interactive conversations starters with Dialup. One went really well until it didn’t. So for the sake of nostalgia (Craigslist’s Missed Connections) and wanting to foster connection, please help us unite these two:

Dear Misfit the Chemical Engineer from Colorado:

Oh, how technology has let us down! 

We were connected on Dialup last night, and 11 minutes later disconnected. 

Quite possibly about to change the world together, we were discussing your chemical engineering background, other forms of engineering, neuroscience, machine learning, and how to leverage the public spaces of local community media centers as a springboard for connecting communities in a diverse digital space for the people, by the people, with the people. Your engineering background was an exciting perspective for me in my work to help create that space…I couldn’t help but think….what if a single disconnected phone call becomes a lost opportunity? And why did technology let us down? And why, why, why, did I forget your name?! And so this is an effort to see how difficult it is to find you, Misfit from Colorado on Dialup. I tried to find you on Discord, I even went so far as to hit up 167 people in the New Public Fest Zoom chat. So this experiment continues…a digital world randomly connected us out of hundreds or thousands of people…we made a human connection…technology disconnected us…can the other humans help me find you to continue that phone call, even if we end up having nothing to talk about. 

The search continues….
Emily from VT

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In celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., dream up new futures,

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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.