Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Public Square

One of the curious consequences of modern technology is that it causes distortions to Time and to Space as these are ordinarily experienced. What they are is a philosophy, natural and other, keeps examining. I emphasize modern technology because its uses demand very dense and ample forms of energy; the availability of such energy really dates to the mid-nineteenth century.

When we speak of the “public square” these days, we no long literally mean a place. Long ago and far away, however, when the Greek agora and the Roman forum were such centrally located and large open spaces, space in the ordinary sense was very important for any kind of meaningful public assembly. The spatial aspect of public communication had not yet been (call it) virtualized. That virtualization began with the rise of the newspaper, was intensified by radio, and became exhaustive with the dawn of television. Since then—if we must absolutely find a space for this public square—we find a part of it in every living room; it is the part were communications are directed at the public. The response to these communications has been institutionalized as polling; it is from polling that we get public opinion—rather than from the shouting, yelling, or clapping in an actual, physical forum. The geographical reach of the old agora was also limited maximally to a 100-mile circle. Our media are influential everywhere.

The time dimension in ancient times was limited to the speed of travel by horse or by ship. Events in China taking place back then on a given day could not—could never—reach people in Italy on the same day. Today we’ve annihilated Time as well or, to be more precise, the speed at which electronics waves travel is the new limit.

So where do we fit the Internet? Is it yet another extension of the media? Does it enlarge that public square? In an ambiguous way— perhaps. It enlarges the public square for those who are willing to use it for that purpose—but it is generally much slower than media-capped-by-TV. The Internet is also only potentially public. My favorite analogy is that posting something on the web is analogous to typing out a sheet and pinning it to the back of one’s garage. If the garage backs onto an ally, some potential readers might see it…. In fact it isn’t quite as bad as that because the Internet has multiple searchable indexes, the big one being Google. But the Internet, like all modern technology, annihilates space and time to the extent now possible. It is the Great Library. You can find virtually any kind of take on reality there, from the absurd on to the exalted. But it does not oblige you to go to any building anchored in space. Consulted with mobile devices, it is everywhere. And its speed is very fast. Ah, the 1950s. All those trips to the library—and up and down all those stairs there….

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