Public space, Hannah Arendt and Toronto

“If cultural homogeneity is no longer an option, how do we live together? An indispensable precondition for peace and harmony is to have place and spaces where we tread the same sidewalks, see each other, simply walk to a park or public square to meet friends, take our kids to play, walk our dogs, and through unscripted interactions learn to cope with our inevitable differences and understand our commonalities. Virtual space does not replace that. As with many other earlier communications advancements – telephone, movies, television – new technological capabilities are absorbed and become complementary to this still-basic need for face-to-face encounters.

Encountering the “other” in public has something fundamental to do with self-actualization. As philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, humans appear before others in public in order to be recognized. Personal identity is exposed and revealed. This “revelation” of identity cannot happen in isolation; it cannot result from self-reflection alone. Our public self is revealed in a public place. In our city, we cannot help being aware that we have been born into a world that is inhabited by many others who are different from ourselves. We can also see that, in large part, we benefit form that reality and thus we consider it a positive condition of our shared lives as city dwellers.

A pervasive desire for some form of sociability in true public space seems to meet a fundamental human need. On a personal level, many of us have a longing for the unscripted possibilities – a life of absolutely “no surprises” is deadly dull. Too, the experience of seeing and being seen among our peers in public confirms our own place in the universe as humans and the connectedness of things. In true public space we can reveal and communicated our uniqueness as individuals and at the same time recognize the differing identities of others. These interactions, even when they provide something as simple as awareness and familiarity, speak to our collective viability as an urban society. In the absence of public spaces where such mingling can occur, problems of exclusion can easily arise. When citizens do not meet their fellow citizens – in all their variety – there emerges the very real danger that the unknown “other” will be seen as in some way threatening. In our heterogenous city, we have an obligation to ensure the existence of a space for communication and interaction among all citizens; and it must be inclusive enough to allow access and use by everyone.

There is an important political dimension, as well. The presence and stability of the commons is critical to democracy.We need space for political freedom, places where people can demonstrate, express dissent, and freely vice opinions in public.”

Counterpoint: Nathan Jurgenson in The Social Photo

“‘The Moment’ is not just a solitary experience. And, often, when people praise disconnecting from the digital in order to be ‘in the moment together,’ it really is a privileging of mere geography. The fetishization of contiguity has a long tradition and is echoed in our everyday language: each time we say ‘IRL,’ ‘face-to-face,’ or ‘in person’ to mean connection without screens, we frame what is ‘real’ or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness-variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil, and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. ‘Face to face’ could mean much more than breathing the same air.

Geographic proximity remains important to whether we call something ‘close’ or ‘in person’.or ‘face to face.’ At times it is perhaps the most significant variable. But it certainly should not be the only one. To start from the prerequisite that co presence is solely dependent on proximity in space devalues so many other moments where closeness occurs and happens to be mediated by a screen. Physicality can be digitally mediated: what happens through the screen happens through bodies and material infrastructures. The sext or the intimate video chat is physical-of and affecting bodies. Video chat brings faces to other faces. You are aware of, learning from, assessing, stimulated by, and speaking through bodies and the spaces around them, as details of those spaces filter in and are noticed or foregrounded. This screen-mediated communication is face-to-face, in person, physical, and close in so many important ways, and distant in only one.

Likewise, being geographically close does not necessarily assure the other qualities of proximity. You can be in the same room with someone, but that doesn’t mean you are actively caring for or about them: maybe you are not listening; perhaps you are there out of obligation. You can be distant in all the ways you were close in the video conversation, not ‘in the same place’ at all. To be sure, mediated communication comes with miscommunication, degradations in the fidelity of the message, the loss of meaning. But to downplay mediated communication is to downplay the cultural and social possibilities of communicating with those who are far away, to exchange across culture, to send messages to those in the future, to speak to yourself from the past, to interface with the dead.”