Archis 1999 #12

Het publieke belang / The public interest

— by

The unquestioned assumption long prevailed that the city was the foundation of the public realm. Ever since the rise of civil society, the city has been a refuge, a platform for poets and philosophers, a forum for politics and a breeding ground of genius. Its squares formed the backdrop for confessions and for protests. Streets and alleys were the battlegrounds of the struggle between private and public interests. Coffee houses and other public spots became venues for a flourishing debating culture. The urban architecture guaranteed sufficient anonymity to allow public behaviour that defied convention. And, in the minds and the houses of the citizens, there was also privacy. You were left to yourself, to charge yourself up for new social exertions worthy of a vigorous society. The city was the substance of democracy. The city air made man free.

Of course all that was in the past – if it was ever true, that is. In the network society, the public realm is not necessarily located in the streets and squares. It’s on websites. Chat boxes. Electronic voting booths. Databases. The citizen is turning into a Netizen.
The inhabitant of a network society is far from anonymous. He can pay for his shopping with his eyes, at a cash desk with an iris scanner. His digital thumbprint is repeated in hundreds of databases and is easily transmitted, sold or scrutinized. Generally without his knowing it, his consumer preferences are constantly monitored and analysed. His movements are observed by omnipresent camera systems that store his image for an indefinite period. His antecedents are effortlessly reconstructed by the tracing algorithms for network behaviour. Giant computers meanwhile scan the Net tirelessly for ‘subversive’ behaviour patterns. The most intimate details are accessible to parties who do not even know the person involved. If privacy is the touchstone of the public realm, then it is having a hard time now.

In this light, standing up for the public space in the physical sense can be no more than a rearguard action. But we must not give up too quickly. It is in practice still assumed that the city embodies the public realm. Nobody has yet drawn the conclusion that the disappearance of the classical city puts democracy in jeopardy. People may grumble about the credibility of politics but one seldom hears of concerns about the vitality of democracy.

It is still possible, for example, to argue the case of the compact city on the grounds of its significance as a breeding ground for the cosmopolitan spirit. That is why this issue presents a study of the transformation of urban public space. But it remains a question whether that space is a stripped carcass left over from the feast of privatization, or whether it still shows the necessary vital signs for it to build up new cultural strength.