Weekend Edition: Our Private Public Sphere
What the Twitter upheaval might teach us about private public goods.
Some of the jibber jabber about Twitter has died down over the last week. Despite the noise, lots of the dialog around Musk’s takeover has been fascinating (Danah Boyd’s piece yesterday was one of the smartest and broadest perspectives I’ve seen) in many many dimensions — not all of which are super productive, but many are pretty hard not to watch. Chris Hayes wrote an essay last the weekend about the slow-motion upheaval we’re all watching in real-time and pointed to a specific and perhaps the most important broader consequence / concern with what we are watching. Reconciling an epic failure of core neoliberal social policy: the public reliance on the market-based social good.
We hear constant reference to Twitter as “our de facto public square.” And while I would contend that it is only a narrow slice of a much more complex interconnected public sphere, it has hosted a vibrant, problematic, deeply influential set of conversations essential to our cultural and civic lives for more than a decade. What Hayes points out is the danger of relying on a private system and a market-based actor for an essential public good:
“Whatever happens to Twitter, watching Mr. Musk’s reign over it should force us to rebuild the dream of the internet’s founders of a digital commons. Because we’ve had it before, we know we can make a place to connect and learn and argue that no one person owns. We can create a collective digital life that doesn’t depend on mining every nanosecond of our attention for profit.”
But this mistake (and the opportunity) is not just about civic discourse, it represents a larger failure of a narrow overly technocratic approach to governing, justice, and addressing social needs — and the opportunity of reintroducing public systems to public goods.
Marketization, commercialization, privatization are fundamental features of neoliberal technocracy especially in the form of the glittering public-private partnerships so often touted as a pinnacle of modern, smart social good systems design. They are the rational, efficient things that appeal in theory but ignore basic realities of applied economics and social behavior. Their eminence in public policy circles represents an ascendant, libertarian-inspired Silicon Valley innovation culture reshaping how we think about public systems and public governance.
Founders like Elon Musk are drawn to these kinds of principles precisely because of the responsibilities they don’t have to carry. Little things like unintended consequences and the commonization of costs are seen as key features, not bugs, in these systems. Markets are good at lots of things — rapid large-scale feedback of desire and demand, rapid iteration — but they also introduce incentives that may skew our understanding or run counter to the ultimate outcomes we care most about. If safety and constancy are what society should promise of its public goods, embracing principles of innovation that appeal most to folks who have never needed protection and have infinite tolerance for risk (because the are never really at risk) and never fear for their lives — new founders same as the old founders — is not just problematic, it’s dangerous. Private markets only provide public goods as an after thought, an accident, or as an acceptable freerider. Unless the public goods are explicitly stated and guaranteed in some fashion, you're just getting something as a semi-intentional freerider that we should not rely on or expect to continue to function as a public good. If it's ever not in the profit interest of the primary entity (a la journalism) or simply in alignment with private desires (a la Twitter) that freerider cost is going to come due and likely be paid by the public or be eliminated entirely.
One of the great erosions of public intuitions by neoliberal technocrats preaching market-based venture-philanthropy doublespeak (that I have previously been both guilty of and seduced by) over the last decade has been the quiet background disinvestment in the actual public systems and public infrastructures capable of providing public goods. Markets are useful, and sometimes a market can create a utility that creates profit at a price that solves a community need for a time. But what when constraints change, problems change, balance changes? What do the people who've come to rely on that private service for community benefit do without it? Wait for another round of venture money? Another creative deck to convince some other fund that profit can align with good in that particular issue space? What do people do in the meantime? Oh, we need a public system — but we've spent two decades undermining them, building narratives around the grand innovation and efficiency of silicon valley, and the sad, bureaucracy of non-market yada yada. We don’t need efficiency all the time: efficiency is not a moral good. Sometimes we need efficacy at any cost. But if venture-backed startups aren’t going to embrace those moments and help solve those challenges, who then? Oh, the people who live the challenge, who've breathed it in and out of their bodies for generations and who can't wait patiently for a market cycle because they are starving or dying from the water today. (And yesterday and tomorrow.) But boxed water is better, just you wait…
[Aside: The work of USDS might represent one of the best models of applying different talent and creativity into public spaces, but importantly the talent is coming into government, not privatizing the problems and solutions.]
This fear of the future and sense of living under constant existential risk that result (at least in part) from the lack of guarantees promised by systems we rely on are the ultimate inequalities in modern American society. They spring from all kinds of issues and gets expressed in all kinds of ways, but the anger of populism is as much about this uncertainty and failure to recognize, acknowledge, and address it as any actual economic imbalance. Emotional and social inequality of a society that takes care of one group by making a bright, shining future available with no friction is the inequality that drives anger and resentment and feeds the potent desire for retribution amongst those for whom that is not only out of reach but outright denied. People need to be paid back for this emotional and spiritual debt that they are being asked to carry. And we need to find paths toward including everyone in the future we envision for ourselves and the world. And in the process we need to make sure our public goods — including our public sphere — work, all the time, for everyone, no matter how inefficient they might be.
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