The Hyper-Public symposium might best be described as an unconventional amalgamation, disciplines traditionally divergent brought together to discuss the emerging phenomenon of hyper-public space. Each session featured interesting speakers and incited many comments, the engagement from the audience significant and nearly without end. That said, I found myself wondering at the symposium’s conclusion exactly how each speaker connected to the others. Yes, I recognized that each spoke in some way about the concepts of private and public, that many touched upon architectural history and the dangers of extreme publicity. However, the overall arch of the symposium was unclear to me and, as a result, I found myself visually mapping out its contents.
Below is the outcome of this undertaking. By dividing the Conference into three distinct parts, the significance of each speaker’s argument and its’ place within the whole became clear, specific definitions, comparisons, and recommendations emerging as a result of this breakdown.
The questions that seemed to permeate each section of the symposium are as follows: (1) What is Privacy? (2) How can we understand the shift in privacy vis-à-vis architecture? and (3) How do we behave in this hyper-public space? Each of these questions is relevant to the others – each connects to the notion of privacy and to its changing role in the digital world – and each contributes to the growing understanding of the hyper-public landscape.
The first of the three questions plays what might be termed a clarifying role, addressing directly a concept at the symposium’s core. This question, “What is privacy?” is by no means a simple one and the answers provided by Hyper-Public participants in response differ both thematically and conceptually. In parsing the definitions provided, two schools of thought emerge, the first considering privacy an action to be undertaken, the other seeing it a quality inherent to a particular space or context.
To this first school of thought belong both Paul Dourish and danah boyd. For Dourish, privacy is, quite literally, a practiced action, little more than a naturally occurring social relation. Boyd disagrees slightly, suggesting that privacy is in fact difficult to implement, a concept inorganic in today’s world. In contrast to earlier times, she explained, in which people were “private by default and public by effort,” people today are “public by default and private by effort.” The act of being private, in other words, must now be intentionally undertaken, successfully established only with great difficulty.
Laurent Stalder and Beatriz Colomina – both academic architects – consider privacy more a quality than an explicit action. Both seem to agree with boyd that traditional notions of privacy are outdated today. Privacy is to them something under attack: once found within the four walls of a building, its supremacy is currently challenged by the emergence of an online world. Where once existed physical boundaries separating the public from the private, today there exists very little, the walls once standing crumbling in the wake of digital technology.
The second question guiding the conference addresses exactly this phenomenon, responses thereto wondering how the shift away from private spaces might be understood through an architectural lens. Beatriz Colomina and Charlie Nesson responded to this question in a similar manner, both thinkers highlighting the need for a private space within a public arena. The current challenge, both suggested, lies not in creating a traditional, walled in private space but in crafting its modern counterpart – a place where people can exist privately while also living under the omnipresent public eye.
This space, perhaps, lies on the continuum between the public and private. This notion of a continuous space was described at length by the three Connection speakers – Latanya Sweeney, Gerhard Buurman, and Herbert Burket – and by Ethan Zuckerman, all of whom suggested that the private and public not be viewed as dichotomous opposites, but instead as the ends of a single spectrum. As Zuckerman stated, life today can best be described as occurring in a semi-private, semi-public space, in a place simultaneously private and public. It seems, then, that we have already begun creating the space desired by Colomina and Nesson. The difficulty lies in governing this space – in prescribing norms and laws by which people ought to behave.
It is this topic that the third question of the symposium addresses, speakers exploring those behaviors most frequently practiced in this emerging space. Adam Greenfield, Betsy Masiello and danah boyd all touched upon the importance of etiquette and social norms, describing the ways by which individuals are beginning to navigate this new arena. danah boyd gave the most concrete explanation, focusing on youth practices as a prototype for more general behaviors. Youth, she explained, are in a constant cycle of development, creating and disseminating norms to which all are expected to conform. Through the use of these norms, youth create private spaces in this otherwise public arena, hiding behind practices incomprehensible to the uninformed, taking advantage of language as a medium through which to establish boundaries.
John Palfrey and Laurent Stalder looked ahead in response to this question, suggesting specific actions to be undertaken, discussing not behaviors already practiced, but the need for new threshold devices, new tools that will allow for increased clarification between spheres. In the absence of the traditional barriers that once differentiated the public from the private, there exists a need for a new form of wall – one that might slow the flow of information, easing the user’s experience, making possible a successful navigation.
How, though, might such walls be developed? The answer, it seems, lies in large-scale cooperation – a cooperation that draws in actors from realms otherwise divorced. As Ethan Zuckerman, Martin Nowak, and Nicholas Negroponte implied, such cooperation must bring together corporations, educators, and individuals, all working together towards a common goal, all trying to develop a set of precedents through which to regulate online behavior. As Nowak mentioned, such cooperation will not always be simple; it requires a significant measure of generosity from each participant and will succeed only when this benevolence is guaranteed.
As of now, there exists no such cooperation, no single mechanism by which the public/private boundary can be successfully patrolled. This, though, is the direction towards which we ought to be heading, its importance perhaps the greatest recommendation to emerge from the Hyper-Public symposium.
In considering the conference in this fractured way, divided and recombined on a topical basis, its lasting benefit becomes more recognizable, the insights gleaned organized in a manner more accessible. This separation, for me, brings to life the conference in a way previously unfeasible, allowing for the development of a concrete set of guidelines upon which to base future action.