Digitization and urban space
At home in the public sphere

In the public sphere, being in a good mood is no longer a private matter
In the public sphere, being in a good mood is no longer a private matter | Photo: © Shutterstock

What is private, and what is public? Digitization is changing our relationship with public space: in cities in particular, people are rediscovering public space and fulfilling their desire for collective experiences in it.

For decades, there was talk of the “fall of public man” (Richard Sennett), while the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas claimed that public space is no longer needed for anything apart from shopping. And in a similar vein, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas also told a tale of decline in his work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. It seemed as if people were hiding away in their own private domains and wanted nothing more to do with the rest of society. The Internet caused the one major public sphere to disintegrate into lots of different subgroups, as the Internet offers everyone the chance to find what they are interested in and to track down like-minded people. As a result, any appreciation of the bigger picture is lost.
And yet despite all these trends towards privacy, our compulsion to go outside, into the public sphere, is enormous. Now that the Internet has become mobile and we all carry a smartphone around with us, it is transforming our cities and changing our shared experience of the public sphere. The willingness many people are showing to intervene and get involved, and to join others in actively shaping some aspect of our world, the experience that it is possible to change something and the need to feel that we are active individuals – all of this is part and parcel of the culture of the interactive Internet. The city of the digital modern age has all of this to thank for much of its growing vitality.

Of course, the Internet is also home to opposing movements and opens up possibilities for anonymity and isolation; at the same time it fosters collective thinking, that phenomenon of “sharism” that is talked about so much. Perhaps it could be claimed that the community spirit that is expressed in crowd-sourcing projects like Wikipedia is changing the psychology of the public sphere and that this is also why many people are changing the way they behave in physical public spaces.

Inhibitions associated with the private sphere no longer exist

Many people appear to be in the grip of a silent anarchy – especially the younger generation: they view even the ugliest car parks as ideal places to practise their athletic stunts (parkouring), transform concrete pavements into flowerbeds (guerrilla gardening), turn street furniture into artworks (street art) or host parties in abandoned urban spaces (outdoor clubbing). And in all cases it is the Internet, Facebook and Twitter that serve as the catalysts, as they provide the necessary information and tips and allow people to overcome the long-feared anonymity of the city.

The relationship between the public and the private is currently shifting in a similarly radical way as it last did a good 200 years ago – when the middle-class family and private life emerged. People would alter their behaviour when they left their homes, as there were many things that simply were not done in the public sphere: one did not drink from paper cups, nor while walking, and very few people would have allowed themselves to be massaged in public, as has now become common at some major airports. In other words, the public domain is enjoying growing popularity these days not least because many of the inhibitions associated with the private sphere no longer exist.
Some even believe we are already living in a post-privacy era. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”, advises Google’s longstanding CEO Eric Schmidt. Or, as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg puts it: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” As far as Zuckerberg is concerned, the private domain is public and the public domain is private – essentially meaning that it is all one and the same thing.

However, this does not imply that urban space is no longer needed; on the contrary, demonstrations and protests are everywhere, and enraged citizens would be nothing without streets and squares in which to express their anger. And especially in the heated debates about Street View, Facebook and the data leeches at Apple it is clear that despite all the changes there is still a strong awareness of that which forms the basis for any liberal public sphere, namely the right of self-determination.

Urbanism from the grassroots

We are dealing with a phenomenon of entirely conflicting trends, in other words. However, it is not least this conflict that is driving the revival of the public sphere and of this urbanism from the grassroots. Unlike on the Internet, where individuals tend always to encounter that with which they are familiar, individuals in the physical world are confronted with one another in all their diversity. They form a collective that may not be stable, but is certainly very much alive. Habermas considered the coffeehouse to be the original site of the political public sphere. In today’s takeaway coffee era the political often takes place in passing, and public life is moving into parks, onto traffic islands or in front of stations. More people than ever before are meeting, despite having not known each other beforehand, and are sharing views and ideas and experiencing themselves as a temporary community. These are the inhabitants of the new digital world, known by some as nomads. They are at home in the public sphere.