One of my best correspondents wrote me today about the "Readings" article in the latest Harper's; "Tact In The Age of Wikileaks," by Slavoj Zizek. She was intrigued by the discussion of private vs. public space. We wrote back about this a few times, and she came up with the following four questions:
What is the difference between public and private space?
What are the rules that govern the two spaces?
Why do we have them both?
What is lost if either is allowed to overwhelm or replace the other?
I thought these were excellent questions and well-framed, and thought I'd give a shot at answering them, off the top of my head. I'd be interested in hearing back from anyone here as to their thoughts on these matters.
1. What is the difference between public and private space?
Who makes the rules. The more private the space, the more the rules are made by the owners. What is ostensibly owned is usually owned conditionally. To the extent that the owners make the rules, the space is private to the owners.
Public space only exists to the extent that it is controlled as a commons by agreement. It is still owned, but it is owned cooperatively. An exception might be space that no one cares about, that can be managed more anarchically. That does happen, and it can be a good fertile breeding ground for true creativity.
2. What are the rules that govern the two spaces?
The more private the space, the more the rules are made by the owner.
The rules that govern public spaces must be democratic, or else they are not truly public spaces. What those rules are will be dependent upon circumstances. The more limited the resources, the more stringent the rules must be.
3. Why do we have them both?
We have private spaces because humans need private spaces for their mental health. Also because we need to be able to engage in projects with some protection from vandals.
We also need some kinds of spaces where life forms who are damaged or at risk can be protected. We get into some crossover public/private space problems there; i.e.; "tree-huggers."
We have public spaces so we can have places to get together that constitute level playing fields, where no private entity is allowed to have undue control. They can then be used as based for cooperative public projects as well, with labor and other resources coming from the public, via some form of democratic vote.
4. What is lost if either is allowed to overwhelm or replace the other?
Losing private spaces entirely will result in revolution, because though we are tribal critters, we are not herd critters – i.e., we perceive ourselves and each other as individuals, and thusly need some individual space in which to operate. A society can turn feudal and still the serfs will have some private space, even if they occasionally have to cede it when the latest Baron comes around to claim the prettiest pubescent child.
But if it turns fascistic to the point where nobody but the owners has any private space at all, eventually it will break, because the people will start breaking too much, and the strongest of the broken will rebel and be killed, and the survivors will band up and turn on the owners.
The only way for this not to happen would be the right Soma. Huxley gave us a good blueprint as to the dangers of Soma in "Brave New World." Opiates of the masses abound these days; why, you can see them on your T.V., and even on the Intertubes.
Inevitably, historically, too much personal invasion results in either genocide or rebellion. The only way to get it to work at all (other than Soma, which is dicey) is to convince your planned serfs that they are different from those you are trying to kill (who are generally the upstarts getting in the way of your plans).
When you are trying to control everybody, it will fall apart sooner or later. Who will police your kapos?
Losing public spaces will result in stagnation and a general loss of creativity, in that these forums in which to freely interact are not available. What will be left is small private spaces, but what happens then?
I think what happens then is the loss of private spaces entirely, as the people with the most guns continue to try to encroach.
Or maybe not; maybe we just go back to feudalism. Feudalism worked for a long time. Kinda.
Update: a comment from Gooserock.
Coming At This From a Very Different Angle, arguably the greatest threat to humanity at this moment is the fact that precious communication rights of the global superpower result in society's mainstream public square being private space: the mainstream media. Private mega-corporate space.
Every crisis we face, every way in which our internal squabbles crush lives and opportunity across humanity, is rendered impractical to discuss rationally before our mainstream voters, with pertinent factual information, by the fact that most people are informed by private media properties Constitutionally liberated from duty or obligation, from checks or balances.
We're the leading driver of planet-wide habitability destruction, we've caused 2 global financial crashes within a lifetime after conservative financial deregulation. When we stumble, millions lose livelihoods or lives around the world.
I'm a broken record on this subject but I have no simple or pat solution to offer. My feeling is that we need a revolution of societal communication governance more radical than the revolution of governance that the rest of our Constitutional system was when it was new.
One thing's abundantly clear: our public square must not be the private property of information warlords.
Well, don't you just as always rock Gooserock. Thanks for that.