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cisler: Public space in the digital age

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Date: Wed, 30 Jun 1999 09:03:29 -0800
Subject: Public space in the digital age
From: "cisler" <>
To: nettime <>

On June 29, The Electronic Frontier Foundation hosted a discussion
centered on Andrew Shapiro's new book _The Control Revolution_

The event: "Public Space in the Digital Age: Is the Internet a
 Vibrant Commons or a Collection of Gated  Communities?"

Participating on the panel were Howard Rheingold (author of Tools for
Thought, etc), Katie Hafner (New York Times writer), David Ellington (CEO
of Net Noir), and Andrew Shapiro. 

It took place in an important public space: the public meeting room of San
Francisco Public Library. The audience included many people in the
Internet industry and supporters of EFF. They numbered about 40 by the end
of the two hour meeting. 

The panel was facilitated by a woman from the EFF who did not introduce
herself. The EFF is interested in preserving digital public spaces, and
naturally we look at the laws or rules pertaining to physical ones.
Everyone agreed that the latter were shrinking: main streets (in the US)
dying and the traffic and commerce moving to malls. public parks to theme
parks, and so on. 

Shapiro said that public activities were being displaced by online ones:
buy a book online rather than at a book store, for example.  Ellington
said that some would never be displaced: dinner with a friend, reading a
newspaper in a cafe, enjoying a big screen movie.  He claimed that movie
attendance had never been better, even with the VCR and DVD. <I note that
in some Latin American towns, the movie theater HAS been displaced by
video rentals>

Howard Rheingold gave a rundown of the shift in getting news when the
printing press became popular. It too became more private.  The discussion
soon involved the audience who had as much to say as the panelists, and
because the facilitator had a lot of opinions herself, she wanted to speak
and challenge some of the panelists.  Soon there were a several topics
being discussed. Mildly chaotic. 

One of the more contentious was about a new ad-based
service that allows users of their plug-in to view and post comments on
any web site, sort of like a plastic sheet on top of your computer screen
where the site information is not altered, but pseudonomous writers can
praise, critique or trash a site. The current plug-in only works on MS
Explorer for Windows. 

People argued whether Third Voice was a public space, and if the critical
comments were the equivalent of picketing an enterprise to protest a
policy or service. The owner of Net Noir didn't care for it; EFF thought
it was okay. Third Voice owner tried to explain and defend it at the same

Some people made broad statements about how everything would evolve or
what "everyone" would be able to do as the technology became more
pervasive and sophisticated. A member of the audience felt like this only
referred to a small portion of the real world and that there were too many
barriers to expect that user base to expand rapidly.  I made a comment
about the growth of Indonesian political mailing lists earlier this year
on Panelists acknowledged the access issues, and Katie
Hafner finished up with a comment about returning to the small town where
her father had lived before his untimely death. The impact of people
living in proximity with others, getting to know them, and watching them
grow up and grow old was a revelation to her. She realized that they knew
her father better than she did. 

Steve Cisler