Public/Private Spaces: Notes on a lecture

The class today was entitled Public/Private Spaces: Pulling things together, and had the idea of summing up the physical city part of the Civic Media course.

But before we could even go forward I needed to add an update to the earlier lectures on racial segregation. The article The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black is fascinating and not a little sad because of its implications.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black. Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

The actual beginning of class was a response to the students assignment to present three arguments for and three arguments against the Internet as a Human Right. In order to locate the discussion in the context of human rights I spoke of Athenian democracy and the death of Socrates, and the progression from natural rights to convention based rights. The purpose was both to show some progression in rights development – but also to show that rights are not linear and indeed contain exceptions from those the words imply. The American Declaration of Independence (1776) talks of all men

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

but we know that this was not true. Athenian democracy included “all” people with the exception of slaves, foreigners and women. So we must see rights for what they are without mythologizing their power.

In addition they cannot seen in isolation. For example the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) came as a result of the French Revolution include many ideas that appear in similar rights documents

  • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
  • Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.
  • Law is the expression of the general will
  • No punishment without law
  • Presumtion of innocence
  • Free opinions, speech & communication

The similarities are unsurprising as they emerge from international discussions on the value of individuals and a new level of thought appearing about where political power should lie.

The discussion then moved to the concept of free speech and the modern day attempts to limit speech by using the concept of civility, and interesting example of this is explained in the article Free speech, ‘civility,’ and how universities are getting them mixed up

When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.

Free speech is there to protect speech we do not like to hear. We do not need protection from the nice things in life. Offending people may be a bi-product of free speech, but a bi-product that we must accept if we are to support free speech. Stephen Fry states it wonderfully:

fryAt this point we returned to the discussion of private/public spaces in the city and how these may be used. We have up until this point covered many of the major points and now it was time to move on to the more vague uses. Using Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance by John Parkinson we can define public as

1.Freely accessible places where ‘everything that happens can be observed by anyone’, where strangers are encountered whether one wants to or not, because everyone has free right of entry

2.Places where the spotlight of ‘publicity’ shines, and so might not just be public squares and market places, but political debating chambers where the right of physical access is limited but informational access is not.

3.‘common goods’ like clean air and water, public transport, and so on; as well as more particular concerns like crime or the raising of children that vary in their content over time and space, depending on the current state of a particular society’s value judgments.

4.Things which are owned by the state or the people in and paid for out of collective resources like taxes: government buildings, national parks in most countries, military bases and equipment, and so on.

and we can define private as:

1.Places that are not freely accessible, and have controllers who limit access to or use of that space.

2.Things that primarily concern individuals and not collectives

3.Things and places that are individually owned, including things that are cognitively ‘our own’, like our thoughts, goals, emotions, spirituality, preferences, and so on

In the discussion of Spaces we needed to get into the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) which states that individuals all act out of self-interest and any space that isn’t regulated through private property is lost forever. This ideology has grown to mythological proportions and it was very nice to be able to use Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom to critique it:

The lack of human element in the economists assumptions are glaring but still the myth persists that common goods are not possible to sustain and that government regulation will fail. All that remains is private property. In order to have a more interesting discussion on common goods I introduced David Bollier

A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise

We will be getting back to his work later in the course.

In closing I wanted to continue the problematizing the public/private discussion – in particular the concepts of private spaces in public and public spaces in private. In order to illustrate this we looked at these photos:


Just a Kiss by Shutterpal CC BY NC SA

The outdoor kiss is an intensely private moment and it has at different times and places been regulated in different manners. The use of headphones and dark glasses is also a way in which private space can be enhanced in public. These spaces are all around us and form a kind of privacy in public.

The study of these spaces is known as Proxemics: the study of nonverbal communication which Wikipedia defines as:

Prominent other subcategories include haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture”. Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also “the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns.

The discussions we have been having thus far have been about cities and the access and use of cities. How control has come about and who has the ability and power to input and change things in the city. Basically the “correct” and “incorrect” use of the technology. Since we are moving on to the public/private abilities inside our technology I wanted to show that we are more and more creating private bubbles in public via technology (our headphones and screens for example) and also bringing the public domain into our own spaces via, for example, Facebook and social networking.

We ended the class with a discussion on whether Facebook is a public or private space? If it is a private space what does it mean in relation to law enforcement and governmental bodies? If it is a public space when is it too far to stalk people? And finally what is the responsibility of the platform provider in relation to the digital space as public or private space?

here are the slides I used:

Are tweets really, really public?

There is a very interesting discussion going on at Gawker about whether Twitter is private or public. Here is a representative excerpt:

Most things that you write on Twitter will be seen only by your followers. Most things that you write on Twitter will not be read by the public at large. But that is only because the public at large does not care about most things that you have to say. It is not because the public does not have “a right” to read your Twitter. Indeed, they do. They can do so simply by typing Twitter dot com slash [your name] into their web browser. There, they will find a complete list of everything that you have chosen to publish on Twitter, which is a public forum.

If you do not want your Twitter to be public, you can make it private. Then it will not be public. If you do not make it private, it will be public.

So far, so good. But then there is the bit that made me think.

Because Twitter is public, and published on the internet, it is possible that someone will quote something that you said on Twitter in a news story. This is something that you implicitly accept by publishing something on Twitter, which is public.

This part I find less convincing. Yes, Twitter is public. But does this really mean that everything in the public could be used in any way. Am I supposed to have implicitly agreed to any form of possible, potential use of my material simply because Twitter is public?


From a copyright perspective there is a good case for arguing that my tweets are my property. But then again I would also argue that republishing the tweets falls under fair use or right to quote. Despite this, it’s still a good illustration that public does not mean free-to-use-in-any-way-I-want.

But what are the limits of re-use of Tweets? I would be offended if a militant group of madmen (take your pick) used a tweet of mine (along with my image and user name) on a poster (unlikely scenario, I know). But would I be able to prevent it?

What about using tweets in lectures? Ah yes, its fair use. What about shaming a student by displaying his/her tweets? (Not outlandish it happened here). What about the police shaming drunk drivers? What if a doctor retweets medical information tweeted by a patient? Would this breach medical ethics?

Tweet This by Kris Olin CC BY NC SA

The technology is public (open for all to see). But this mean that the public has the right to do whatever they please with what they see? Even if there is no legal limits to this behavior, there are ethically questionable reuses of tweets.

The point is that when I tweet something there is a small chance that the people who follow me see it. If some of them retweet then there is a chance of others seeing it. But if @stephenfry were to accidentally retweet it – I would achieve internet fame.

My tweets do not achieve internet fame. My tweets exist within a context. Naturally there is no law preventing them from leaving that context but when they do, their meaning may warp beyond their original meaning and purpose. And when this happens – what is the ethical responsibility of the re-tweeter?

Public servants and Private individuals

TJ McIntyre has a brilliant quote from Glenn Greenwald that summarizes much of what is important in the privacy debate:

The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.

How few is too few?

This is not really about the grains of wheat in the sorites paradox

Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap.

No this is a very practical question: Some time ago I agreed to give a guest lecture. At some point the course convener mentioned in passing that there were not many in the course. Today I received an email saying that the “group” would be as few as 3-4 undergrads. So as I sit drinking late night coffee, ignoring other pressing deadlines the question arises – exactly how few is too few students?

Naturally I threw myself on the wisdom of others and via twitter and facebook was informed of horror stories and depressed lecturers – as well as appeals to duty, a Latin quote (Tres faciunt collegium), social etiquette and the value of the few students who actually do show up. The latter included the quote “History is made up of those who show up” and a inspiring link to the tale of the Sex Pistols first gig.

Naturally, among the ones who do show up may be the amazing rare gem who inspires me and changes the world. Unfortunately years of lecturing show these are incredibly long odds and I probably would be better of playing the lottery.

So knowing this, why am I in the kitchen drinking late night coffee and warming up my slides by writing this post? I wish I knew. Some sort of protestant (actually atheist) work ethic – the show must go on.

At least two of the comments mentioned leaving the lecture hall depressed. From experience I am pretty sure this will be the personal result of lecturing to the empty(ish) hall. But then again this would probably fit nicely in with the protestant ethic (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).

Actually the best suggestion was not to cancel the lecture but turn it into a discussion. This is appealing except that since this is a basic theoretical lecture it will be just a lecture given sitting around a table in the cafeteria. Nice, but still depressing.

So back to the sorites paradox. If you remove one student from a lecture audience it’s still an audience. How many students must you remove for it no longer to be a valid audience?

The private public divide

In the early days of email government employees were told that they needed separate addresses for public and private messages. But that quickly became silly because there often exists no distinction between private and public – they can easily co-exist in the same person. But the problem has not gone away. In the SMS Privacy Case last year the Court of Appeals ruled that Employees’ text messages are private, even when transmitted on devices their companies pay for. But the case is now heading to the Supreme Court.

The background was a police officer had been sending personal private and occasionally sexually explicit text messages. In the court of appeals:

Judge Kim McLean said he “had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages,” which were sent over a department-issued Arch Wireless pager. However, Judge McLean added that the “extent to which the Fourth Amendment provides protection for the contents of electronic communications in the Internet age is an open question.”The city, however, supported its stance against Officer Quon. In a filing, the city’s attorneys said: “To warrant Fourth Amendment protection, a government employee’s expectation of privacy must be one that society is prepared to consider reasonable under the operational realities of the workplace.” They maintain the city should not have to pay for the officer’s messages, which was used for “personal and highly private communications.”

The same problem appeared in Florida where a ruling from the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee of the Florida Supreme Court decided that it was ethically wrong for judges to add lawyers who may appear before them as “friends” on social networks. Apparently old friends may still exist and eating lunch with the judge is not controversial. Strange logic.

The weird thing of a public thesis defense

The public thesis defense is a strange thing. The author is defined as a PhD student (with a focus on the idea of the student) is in fact the expert on the topic being discussed. It is he or she who has the best grasp of the data and all the reasons why the finished book looks the way it does.

Surrounding the author (for the student is also an author) is the supervisor or supervisors. This wise man or woman (sometimes more than one) has acted as a sounding board and guided the student in the production of the work. It is also the supervisor who eventually decides when the work is ready to be defended.

This is followed by a group of four academics that will act as the opponent and the examination committee. Beyond this group of five or six people the rest of the audience have not read the work in its entirety.

This is not to say that they never have had the opportunity. The thesis in Sweden goes through an arcane rite of nailing (spikning) where the author often still physically nails his thesis in a publically available place at least three weeks before the defense.

But in general the audience – a group of colleagues paying respect, family bursting with pride, friends genuinely happy but often confused by the act, young PhD students eager to learn and the occasional odd man from the street interested in the topic – have not seen the text and a vague idea of the topic.

The audience follows the affair from the outside. The chairman introduces and often explains the importance of the act: it is an initiation an introduction and an acceptance. The student is given then opportunity to correct any minor flaws he or she may have discovered in the weeks leading up to the defense (mainly typos).

The central role of the defense is held by the opponent who begins by describing the work at hand and then leads the following discussion by asking probing questions and discusses the reasoning and arguments behind the book. This is not done to “catch out” the student but rather to understand the book that is being examined. It is through this discussion that the examination committee has the opportunity will have a chance to see the character and ability of the student.

Once the opponent is done the chairman opens the floor to questions from the audience and here rumors and horror stories flow among PhD students of spiteful old academics showing up after having read the public copy and ask impossible questions in order to demolish the student.

When this public phase is closed the examination committee, the chairman, the opponent, the supervisor move to the closed part of the examination process. All of them have the right to speak but only the three-member examination committee has the ability to vote and a majority is needed to pass. This may seem easy but since the closed group all form part of a social network they can in reality not decide as freely as it may seem. Here past, present and future alliances and antagonism may form and shape the discussion at hand.
If the open process takes around two hours the closed process takes anything between one to over six hours (the latter is very uncommon but I know of two occasions).

The public defense swings between the vital to the laughable but it is always an event that is key in the maturing of any academic.  Whiskey and wine are stored in a barrel in an evenly acclimatized subterranean hole to emerge the better for it. The process may not be exciting to watch but the result is worth waiting for.

Rolling with punches

I am not short. Not really tall – but I suppose that all this is a matter of perspective. But perspectives and realities of length change and shift after years of riding a desk and huddling over a laptop, standing tall is something I need to remind myself of.

Then there are times when the blows come too fast, too effectively, striking the weaknesses we work so hide to protect. In times like these the urge to curl into a protective ball physically and metaphorically appears to be the only viable option.

It is here where the impulse to run, hide and forget – to lose oneself in fantasy, dreams or the narcotic (from the Greek “to make numb”) substance of choice. My own inclinations lean towards unhealthy food and enough red wine to float a rhino, to which pop psychology deduces deep-rooted insecurity. But I will rebut, if I had the energy, that easy answers mean that you are asking the wrong questions. Never mind that – focus.

Booze and calories are a brief narcotic bringing short lived relief and a nasty aftertaste (hangover would be a cheap pun) of additional guilt, anxiety and the beginnings of a wicked downward spiral of self-loathing.

But the pain I try to avoid is artificial, brought about by false dependencies and a lack of personal moral independence. No matter how real I make it feel.

And yet it is here in the depths of self-created misery that growth occurs. Failure is the true manure of growth. Success and love relaxes and breeds complacency. So it is important to recognize this as the shitty bottom a learning curve. No place to go but up. As the window of self-loathing closes I pull myself up and stand tall to disguise my made-up pain and bring this self-deception of defeat to its knees.

My therapeutic act is to write this in a public place making those who I know read this space and the casual visitors part of my recovery.

Two New OA Books (+1)

This has been a busy week for books on Open Access. On Wednesday I blogged about the book Understanding Open Access in the Academic Environment: A Guide for Authors by Kylie Pappalardo. Today Open Access News wrote about two more new Open Access books:

E. Canessa and M. Zennaro at the Science Dissemination Unit of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste have put together an edited book Science Dissemination using Open Access.

From today’s announcement:

The book is a compendium of selected literature on Open Access, both on the technical and organizational levels, and was written in an effort to guide the scientific community on the requirements of Open Access, and the plethora of low-cost solutions available. The book also aims to encourage decision makers in academia and research centers to adopt institutional and regional Open Access Journals and Archives to make their own scientific results public and fully searchable on the Internet. Discussions on open publishing via Academic Webcasting are also included.

The other book is a 144 pp. collection of articles on OA by 38 authors, edited by Barbara Malina entitled Open Access Opportunities and Challenges: A Handbook, the German UNESCO Commission, July 2008. This is an English translation of Open Access: Chancen und Herausforderungen – ein Handbuch (2007).

Shooting Back

Providing cameras and video cameras to different groups is not an uncommon method which allows the subjects to bring their own lives into focus without the direct mediation of the “outsider” camera/filmmaker. Naturally all uses of technology contain risks of bias and slanted views – nobody still believes that the camera never lies? Even if many still believe that fashion images are “real”.

In January 2007, B’Tselem launched Shooting Back, a video advocacy project focusing on the Occupied Territories. We provide Palestinians living in high-conflict areas with video cameras, with the goal of bringing the reality of their lives under occupation to the attention of the Israeli and international public, exposing and seeking redress for violations of human rights.

In projects such as these technology in the form of the cameras and Internet as a distribution medium can be used to empower those involved in a conflict while still providing a preaceful alternative way of coping with everyday violence.

Torture Established

CNN reports that the organization Physicians for Human Rights have conducted clinical evaluations of 11 former detainees from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan. The report from Physicians for Human Rights shows that the prisoners have been tortured

“We found clear physical and psychological evidence of torture and abuse, often causing lasting suffering,” said Dr. Allen Keller, a medical evaluator for the study.

In a 121-page report, the doctors’ group said that it uncovered medical evidence of torture, including beatings, electric shock, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sodomy and scores of other abuses.

The report is prefaced by retired U.S. Major Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led the Army’s investigation into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in 2003. “There is no longer any doubt that the current administration committed war crimes,” Taguba says. “The only question is whether those who ordered torture will be held to account.”

The rights group demands:

• “Repudiate all forms of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”;

• Establish an independent commission to investigate and report publicly the circumstances of detention and interrogation at U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay;

• Hold individuals involved in torturing detainees accountable through criminal and civil processes; and

• Monitor thoroughly the conditions at U.S.-run prisons all over the world.