The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William Whyte Jr, 1980

Regulating Facebook’s Public Spaces

In architecture school I wrote a dissertation arguing that urban design was no longer happening within the offices of architects, planners, and engineers, but within the lines of code written by small clusters of software engineers in California. My 21 year old self was both apprehensive and excited by this idea.

I proposed architects and urban designers start engaging with this new reality; that it was ludicrous that those now altering our experience of cities in ways more profound than any planner could have dreamed, were in no way qualified, or responsible, for doing so. Whether deciding where we go, how we get there, how we organise, how we socialise, form relationships, it seemed to be that these experiences were now exclusively being shaped by emerging technologies and platforms.

The urgency I felt came from a simple observation: that the qualities of public spaces we enjoy: the presence of others, serendipity, beauty, the unexpected, were being (poorly) replicated or replaced by online equivalents. The trajectory appeared to be taking us down a route where more and more public life was either substituted or mediated by technologies exclusively designed by software engineers.

My answer to this was the “Cyber Architect”! A group of people who were skilled in the areas of architecture, urban design, planning, structural engineering, as well as sociology, software engineering and UX/interaction design. These people would harness the new possibilities to shape urban experience so rapidly and at such a scale, for “public good”, so that software would not compete or draw us away from quality “real-world” public spaces, but enhance them. Because, as I saw it, the comparison between real-world public spaces, and their online equivalents, most profoundly in the case of Facebook, were undeniable.

Over the next several years I set about on a path of experimenting with the idea of the Cyber Architect. The most obvious manifestation of this idea was a collaboration and company I formed with Canadian interaction designer Jonathan Chomko. Between us, we combined our knowledge and skills in architecture, design, interaction and software/hardware development, and produced real-world experiments. These included a street light that recorded and replayed the shadows of those who walked underneath, and an interactive visitor experience in the streets of central London that allowed visitors to locate and explore lost histories around them. Our philosophy was straightforward: use these new technologies to create real-world experiences that enhance the world around us, and produced new opportunities for “genuine” social interaction.

While these experiments unfolded, the social media platforms that had set me off on this journey, unfolded too. The world within which I was now operating, comprising mainly of artists working with technology, appeared to have a growing obsession: data. The work of friends and practitioners that I admired, appeared to increasingly convey a sense of urgency and alarm at what was unfolding online, in particular on social media platforms. Yet in spite of this, I was disinterested. I was bored by the intangible, often highly technical, dilemmas that were being discussed within the conferences, communicated through works of art and critical design, and debated in pubs. Until the “real-world” began changing too.

During a recent interview with Ed Milliband, Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, was discussing the phenomena of fake news, pointing out that fake news is nothing new, after all we all know how effectively misleading propaganda in the form of posters, speeches and particularly films, a relatively new media at the time, were used by the Nazi regime. Harari went on to explain how in 1930s Germany however, the message in the propaganda had to be simplified and broadened to an extent that would allow its message to connect with as many German citizens as possible. What is unique today he explained, is not fake news itself, its that social media targeting algorithms give us the ability to individually tailor propaganda to an individual, based on their own individual biases.

In light of this technological shift, and the unpredictable global events that followed, what became clear is not that we are such different people, but that we inhabit different realities. When objective reality ceases to exist, the terms of a debate around issues such as how to deal with global warming, extremism, immigration or Brexit cease to exist also, and we are left only with our hardened position. It’s within this state of alternative realities that the President of the United States was able to say “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” when describing neo-nazi and anti-facist demonstrators, in the wake of the Charlotteville terror attack.

With every extremist atrocity, every tragic teenage suicide, the incontrovertible evidence mounted of the role social media companies, in particular YouTube and Facebook, played in leading an individual down a tragic path. Anecdotally, in conversations and listening to radio phone-ins, I heard videos and stories from YouTube or Facebook as references for hardened political positions, whether fringe economists presenting alternative forecasts via Youtube, or a fabricated news story on Facebook about a man “being arrested for carrying a British flag”. In this state of public polarisation, accelerated and deliberately manipulated by content on social media, it would be impossible to form a consensus around the truly massive issues of our time, such as global warming, mass-migration, inequality and automation.

The real work of societal change is complex, and the timescales daunting. However, to make a start on that work, we need an electorate that can start reaching a consensus around such issues, with politicians that reflect this consensus and can take a leading role in tackling them. My conclusion from the past few years is that this will require a majority of us to inhabit the same objective reality, so that consensus can be reached, and informed decisions can be made. Regulating social media, a mechanism that holds the potential to individually target us with alternative forms of reality, is an essential step to achieve this.

From day-one, my interest in technology was an emotional one, I loved the experience of towns and cities, and felt dissatisfied with those of social media. I therefore felt that people like me must “seize control!” of the potential of these new technologies and help “steer the ship”. So it wasn’t until I started to see first hand the real-world consequences of these technologies, that I’d seen such potential in, that I understood what those artists, designers and thinkers had been so concerned about. Until I had an emotional response, until there was something to save.

I believe, now more than ever, that this is how the vast majority of humans make judgements, especially on topics we do not have the time to explore in intricate detail. Therefore, I also believe, and see increasingly evidenced, that we are entering a moment of profound choice and change when it comes to the trajectory of social media, and the big internet companies. Where regulation, and a new form of relationship between ourselves and our data, becomes not just a vision, but an inevitability.

It was only recently, while reading Mark Zuckerberg’s new manifesto, where he repeatedly used the phrase “town square Facebook”, that I realised I’d been a part of the joke all along. Facebook, and along with it YouTube, Twitter and Instagram have relied on us buying into a premise: that they are an extension of the public realm, and therefore, are naturally granted the same privileges as our real-world public realm: our town squares.

What the artists and thinkers were desperately trying to tell us is that this has never been so. That these companies are exactly that — companies! Companies who have a legal duty to extract as much value from their product, us, as possible. The advertising model that emerged from these companies relies on us being able to share and encounter content uninhibited. The metaphor of a town square, where our freedom of speech is protected, our freedom to demonstrate, to encounter the unexpected, has rightfully been enshrined in laws and constitutions around the world, became the default argument against regulation.

Last year the UK Government released a White Paper suggesting a new regulatory body to regulate social media. However this remains within the context of the idea of Facebook, and platforms like it, being town squares, and therefore regulation having to be very carefully considered so as not to infringe on our rights (i.e. minimal). The UK Government’s own White Paper suggests that “privately-run platforms have become akin to public spaces”.

For all the compelling comparisons between scrolling through a news feed and strolling through a town square, the ones that I found so alluring in architecture school, it is essential regulation is approached in the same manner that we would with any multi-billion dollar company. Let alone a company that profits exclusively off a product that we produce: data.

It is now essential that this narrative of Facebook and platforms like it being public spaces, being town squares, protected by our hard fought democractic and human rights, is broken down. These platforms could have once argued for such a reality, as the LSD-induced software engineers of the past century dreamt, however that time has passed. The reality in 2019 is that these platforms are publicly listed, multi-billion dollar companies. It is vital at this point in history, with our democracies straining, that we treat them as such.

Artist creating public art installations in cities around the world

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