Who's that peeking in my window...

Milou Allerholm, milou@pi.se Copyright, 1996

Private and public: constantly transforming concepts

There are restaurants which offer you TV in their toilets. The first time I found out about this was at an Italian restaurant in Stockholm a few years ago. Deep in the inner sanctum of the womens room, I discovered one of the countrys best-known news anchormen looking straight at me. This feeling of being watched had never arisen in the living room at home, but here I was struck for a few seconds by a strange suspicion that Big Brother was in fact watching me.

In the wake of the electronic revolution, there have been many discussions about how the public sphere has moved into the private sphere via different media, such as TV, radio, and computers. The individuals link to the outside world is as much the outside worlds link to the individual.

The question of how private the private sphere is is tightly connected to the question of how public the public sphere is. Where does one have the right to be, where does one not? The border between the private and the public is often treated as if it were almost naturally determined and permanent. But the concepts are far from being self-evident. Before the emergence of the bourgeois town, for example, no distinction was made between the private (where no one but the individual has influence) and the public (where all the individual citizens have the right to be present and voice their opinions) in the city since everything was in principle subordinated to the sovereign monarch.

There have been a large number of discussions recently about how relevant the distinction is today. Private for whom, asks for example the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres when he exhibits images of things which are deemed to be obviously private (an unmade bed or an open palm) on billboards in urban spaces. Exhibited in public, the images become almost painfully intimate, and succeed for a second in disturbing the set boundaries between public and private. The ambiguously poetic images supposedly have a more concrete background: a decision made in the American Supreme Court whereby it is in accordance with the Constitution to break into a mans apartment and arrest him for loving someone of the same sex. The inviolate sphere of the home has been made conditional.

Another important discussion concerns which forces are the real actors in the public sphere: politicians today have little chance of implementing change without the participation of private players. What happens with a street space where private interests become increasingly more influential? Besides the increased segregation which arises when a city does not have any overarching overarching policy for urban revitalization and leaves it in the hands of private players (who have no interest in revitalizing areas which are not commercially profitable), we could also discuss how this influences actual access to the public sphere. We are in the age of glass-enclosed shopping galleries, and when they close at six oclock these spaces are no longer accessible. Public spaces acquire new rules, which changes both the freedom of movement and the conditions for being there.

That the formulation of the public sphere were not primarily made with the interest of the citizens in mind is nothing new. Haussmanns boulevards which cut up Pariss swarming city center in the nineteenth century were constructed with arguments for lighter and more beautiful streets, but the real reason was, as Walter Benjamin writes in his OEArcades Project, something totally different: the width would prevent the possibility of building barricades, the straight roads would provide the shortest path between the barracks and the workers districts.

This does not prevent the continued dissemination of clichés such as the inhabitants are the real agents in the city (like, for example, the organizers of the Stockholm Cultural Capital of Europe 1988 have formulated it in a program flyer). That this statement comes from one of many public agencies recently carrying out its work in accordance to corporate principles does not make it any less comic. Even here one can talk of a shrinking public sphere: when state and communal agencies are run like corporations, the access rights which every citizen has previously had (in accordance with Swedens principle of public access to government information) are no longer valid since all the documents become private.

"The happiest place on earth"

A striking example of how public space is privatized can be found in the OEcommunity associations which are growing in number in the United States. There, the borders of the personal are not drawn at the house but at the town gates, where security guards make sure that no OEoutsiders enter. Here the right to the streets and the square does not depend on an overarching politically-determined principle but on each persons ability to buy a part of the town. A privatized public space, owned by Marlboro and other mega-corporations.

These privatized communities have been described as a middle-class flight from society. Now that Walt Disney has finally opened its own town outside Orlanda in Florida, this flight can hardly be clearer. Celebration City offers carefully selected inhabitants a town without crime, a town which will have everything from its own primary school to a university and health care. In return, the inhabitants must follow the detailed rules which the Disney Corporation has established: everything from the trees to be planted in the front yard to curtains, garden parties, and washing ones car must be in accordance with certain regulations. It will be immediately noticeable if someone deviates from the pattern. This is of course highly ironic in a country which places the individuals inalienable freedom at its center: one buys voluntarily into the most totalitarian system, where people with The Right Qualities and The Right Views live in The Right Way.

This town stands out as a veritable Disneyland, as a concentration of the values of American society. What Baudrillard writes about Disneyland in Simulations is also applicable here: All its [Americas] values are exalted here, in miniature and comic strip form. Embalmed and pacified. Whence the possibility of an ideological analysis of Disneyland: [...] digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, idealized transposition of a contradictory reality. Disneys privatized town is driven by similar dreams of a Utopia, a place freed from oppositions and the inner conflicts which characterize society in general.

But, Baudrillard continues, the fact that Disneyland is so obviously an America in miniature also hides a third degree of simulation: Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the real country, all of real America, which is Disneyland. Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. That Disney Corp. OEgoes real becomes then the clearest illustration of this: it is a future which can only repeat already existing signs and already existing forms. There are six house models to choose between, all taken from the idyll of the 50s American small town.

In Sweden, most people would think it a joke if someone claimed to have a university degree from the Disney Corporation. But he who laughs last laughs best: this kind of Disneyfication is nothing that Sweden is standing apart from. It is only hidden so far by a haze of nostalgia for the Swedish OEfolkhem from the halcyon days of the Swedish model, when real was still real and fake was fake, where public was public and private private.

A new public sphere?

Today one can only greet these concepts with a healthy suspicion of their self-evident nature. The public is to a large degree private, the private to a large degree public. How does this square in a comparison with the Internet? There is talk of the Internet as a public space growing at an unimaginable pace. But what do OEpublic and OEprivate mean on the Net; can one talk of a private or a public sphere? Are the concepts meaningful in any sense? The simplest answer is, of course, that anything we have access to is public, and what we cannot access is private. But is it that simple?

The Net is a public entity managed to a large degree by commercial and political interests. When one of Swedens largest Internet providers offers its clients 4000 newsgroups, it is obvious that there are criteria operating which have made the other 20,000 land outside the list. In China, the state wants to censor everything which does not express the countrys traditional values. From this perspective, the Internet becomes, pushing it a little, more of a local press shop (even if it is gigantic in size) where a certain selection has been picked out from an ocean of free floating information.

The most amusing discussions - given that they offer the biggest opportunity for unimpeded conspiratorial ruminations - are caused by questions about the possibility of the individual moving OEprivately on the Net. It is theoretically possible to chart carefully all the traffic, every step taken. Anyone unable to clean up his or her tracks will leave a neat pattern of all the sites visited. Which interests could find it useful to know my movements? Another prevailing uncertainty, at least juridically, is the status that personal correspondence between different people should have. How private ought a mail system be?; can a state demand that it have access to the information which flows via the Net, that people send unsealed letters - or, even better, postcards?

The United States attempt to stop encrypting programs makes me think of one of the best scenes in Alex van Warmerdams film The Northerners, where we find out that the towns mailman steams open and reads all the letters in secret before he delivers them. The town has only one street, and this dull government employee has full insight into what is happening behind the locked doors. This is hardly a situation anyone could wish for on the Net. Besides the futility of such attempts on the part of the state to keep check over a system like the Internet, most are in agreement that a measure of integrity needs to be maintained.

The settlers

But there is also a widespread rhetoric around personal integrity which makes one think of the private communities growing in the States. The following is taken from a text on OEcrypto-anarchism written by one Timothy C. May. The primary purpose of the text is to discuss how to prevent infringements of private space. But it addresses more than that: The World Wide Web is growing at an explosive pace. Combined with cryptographically-protected communication and digital cash of some form (and there are several being tried), this should produce the long-awaited colonization of cyberspace. Most Net and Web users already pay little attention to the putative laws of their local regions or nations, apparently seeing themselves more as members of various communities than as members of locally-governed entities. This trend is accelerating. Most importantly, information can be bought and sold (anonymously, too) and then used in the real world. There is no reason to expect that this wont be a major reason to move into cyberspace.

One will no doubt come to think of the privatized residential areas and the middle-classes flight from society, since at the same time that the crypto-anarchists (and others) emphasis on a transnational mobility has progressive sides to it, their ideas are characterized by an equal measure of escapism - spiced by unabashedly flirting with phrases such as colonizing cyberspace, a word choice which a North American or European today would normally prefer not to use in order to boast. The goal is to liberate oneself from the rules and mechanisms of the real world. But in reality their rhetoric of conquest is only an extension of the less flattering sides of these mechanisms.

Information is power and a commodity; this is the crypto-anarchists fully justified conclusion. This holds true to a high degree for the harsh reality that Internet is a part of, where only a small part of the planets population, mainly in Europe and North America, have access to this global communications net. Perhaps a new colonization really is taking place.

The question of in which way the Internet is a growing public entity remains to be answered. What happens, on a very concrete level, to the new OEhomeless class, lacking an OEaddress and without access to the public space of the Internet? Vito Acconci and LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department) are a few of the artists who have worked on the situation of the homeless by clarifying the mechanisms which maintain and strengthen the economic divisions in the large cities. Will digital homelessness play a role in the future, or is the Internets importance exaggerated?

The town square is a nostalgia never to be regained, it is not there that things are happening. Not least, the Internet will bring with it changes in the real urban space; town planners and architects will have a wholly new infrastructure to take into account. On the Net, you quickly pass through several continents, countries are linked together, and conversations over national borders are possible to an unprecedented degree. It is astounding and in several ways revolutionary: access to information , to others broad knowledge, all the meetings, the possibility of having a discussion one might never have dared approach and of moving between different roles. But even if this communication brings changes to older points of view and notions, the older structures still survive. The Internet is not an independent OEspace, or just as little as privatized towns are. It is a communications technology anchored in society, no matter how high one flies in virtual reality.

Public space is an old habit, as Vito Acconci puts it. And besides, it is an old habit surrounded by sheer embellishment. Artists who work with notions of public space, or with questions of the public and the private, have undeniably been given a new field for work. And there is no need for them to be at loss for work. Because if there is one thing that characterizes the rhetoric around the Internets promised land, it is embellishment.