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On the importance of Digital Public Spaces

This text is from a lecture held at Swedish Innovation Days on January 19 2022. Below is also a recorded version.

Today Im going to speak on the importance of digital public spaces and how they relate to democracy.

If we want our societies to thrive, we need to make democracy. We need to build and develop democracy in such a way that its not stale or static. We cant let our democratic institutions become simply points of interest in history. We need to live democracy by together exploring, adapting and improving it.

Over the past thirty odd years, the internet has evolved and played an integral part in modern society and culture. The internet plays an important part in modern democracies. The internet with all its facets, has become an ever more important environment for democracy to evolve. An important aspect of the internet is that it enables user-generated content to be shared. And even though these aspects of the internet are old, the rise of social media, where everybody is a content creator, has accelerated the possibilities for everybody who wants to, to try to influence the much larger social dialogue we have about what’s going on in the world and how we view the world that we share. The internet has made it possible for people all over the world to raise their voices and share their ideas in ways that just was not possible before.

But just as the internet has enabled new possibilities for democracy, we also see darker and more problematic aspects, that are worrysome. There are reasons to be worried on issues that affect us as individuals, but also towards those issues that poses threats to our communitys and our democracies. Over the past years we have taken part in conversations on how mis- and disinformation can manipulate us and our elections. We have heard about how platforms might be used to increase polarization and make us more intolerant towards eachother. We have also come to understand how platforms use concepts of surveillance capitalism to design services where the user is the product and the advertizer is the customer.

I believe we have come to a point where we need to take a step back and reflect upon the state of things. We need to ask ourselves how we can use the internet to benefit democracy, and at the same time mitigate the risks we can clearly see. In this field there is much to explore, to test and reason around. One such area that I believe holds possibilities for the future of democracy is the need to have a conversation on the importance of digital public spaces. We need to understand what they are, why we need them and how to bring them to use in our everyday lives. We need to inspire a broad and ongoing discussion within society, with politicians, researchers, activists, lawyers, technologists, journalists and many more about how we can use the internet and its vast potential to strengthen democracy all over the world.

What is at stake is society’s digital public space. It has changed over time, from the first years of the Internet, marked by thoughts of openness and freedom to today when our digital environments have been commercialized in several respects and run by a few global companies. This change in the digital public space affects democracy and is problematic from a number of aspects.
Most people perceive the public space as a physical place. It can be the street, the square, the park, the library or the museum. Public spaces plays a major role in our democracy. They are places where residents meet to talk and gather, to debate and demonstrate.

The public space creates possibilities of meetings or connections between people, even for those who do not know each other. The public space is a place where even those who do not share opinions, worldviews or knowledge horizons meet and see each other. It contributes to the cohesion of society.
As our societies become ever more digital, our talks and meeting places, debates and demonstrations to a large degree move from the physical to the digital space. Social media plays a central role in the entire development of society. They have become some of the most central places for society’s diversity of conversations and meetings.

This change has gone fast. A few companies now constitute the digital infrastructure that hosts many of our societies conversations, debates and meetings. Furthermore, it is also the case that the platforms we use to engage in most civic discourse are to a great extent owned by economic interests which are primarily funded by advertising revenue.

That is to say that we use digital infrastructure which has interests, purposes and goals that are other than that of contributing to the maintenance and development of a democratic society. We have gone from having a physical infrastructure where public, civic and private actors share space, to a digital environment where a vast majority of the places we visit are private. This profound change affects democracy in primarily four perspectives;

The first perspective is that of securing our digital public spaces. The public space and the conversations, debates and meetings that take place there constitute one of society’s central functions. The digital public spaces we use are therefore becoming a critical infrastructure for society. When they fail us, we have a hard time carrying out even the most basic of public conversations. It will be important to secure the conditions for democratic dialogue in a digital age, not only in peacetime but also in times of crisis and conflict. We need to ask ourselves how we secure our democracies and our digital public spaces also in the worst of times.

The second perspective is that of the lack of digital public meeting places. Today, in practice, we only have commercial social media available to socialize, talk and debate digitally. But it leads to problems when there are no real alternatives than the commercial ones. In our digital existence, we have shopping centers but not public squares. We have private gardens but no public parks. Private galleries but no public art galleries. The public and civil society have chosen to place their talks, meetings and debates in these commercial environments without any major public or non-profit alternatives. The ability of public actors and civil society to contribute to shaping the future of society in digital envionments is severely limited by the will, interests and developments dictated by others, for other purposes. It is time to look ahead, with lessons learned from history, where previous technological innovation in, for example, radio and television paved the way for the development of public service.

Third perspective is the need for equal opportunities for all to participate in society. When society’s conversations take place in company-owned social media, not everyone can participate in the conversation. It is the companies’ rules that determine who can participate and enage. The rules of our conversations are dictated by the will and interests of the owners of the platform. It is also the companies’ choices of algorithms that dictates the conditions for which conversations are seen, spread and heard the most. It is the companies’ design that shapes the fabric of conversations. A single change in a service can have unforeseen and profound effects on the content and format of conversations, often without the users being aware of it. And when we unintentionally let our political conversations or public services communicate only through social media, we thereby exclude many citizens from the opportunity to take part in the conversation.

The fourth perspective is that of the fragility of our history in digital spaces. Sweden, has a proud and strong tradition of the principle of openness, and laws and regulations for developing, managing and archiving public documents as well as documents that public institutions and the media produce. But when the communication and documents produced by the public sector only is to be found on social media or in other digital private places, much of the documentation we take for granted in society risks to no longer being available. It is also the provider of the service that dictates the conditions for how researchers and journalists can study the data generated by public and civic institutions. When the service ends or the link dies, the data disappears. Without new and novel regulations in these areas, which are also complied with, we risk making our digital society lack basic open data on society that informs current and future researchers, journalists and others of our time.

Democracy isnt static. We shape and mold it together, in the context of the times in which we live. We evolve society and democracy through democratic conversations where different opinions, thoughts and ideas are given the opportunity to be tried, tested and explored. The public space helps to make these democratic conversations possible. That is why it is so important that we safeguard the freedom, opportunity and accessibility of public space. We need to continue to explore, innovate and bring to light new ideas about the design of public spaces, both digital and physical.

Our public spaces, digital and physical, must be attractive meeting places for everyone. The public spaces help to define the character of our countries and help to shape society. It is a daunting task for the public and civic sectors to take part in the development of digital public spaces. But this development also creates opportunities to equip and strengthen democracy for the future.
In a digital society, we need a diversity of spaces that are shaped for different purposes and by different actors, both private and public as well as civil society. In this way, society becomes richer, stronger and more prosperous.
There is therefore no time to spare to engage in the development of our digital public spaces, as well as digital infrastructure for democracy that are not copies of the commercial ones, but shaped for its own purposes and in the service of society and citizens.

There are some examples of of well-functioning digital infrastructure and services that many of us often use are Wikipedia, as a further development of the encyclopedia, and the Internet Archive, the leading open digital archive on the internet. There is ongoing research in many places as well as interesting examples in civil society shows commitment to the issue, such as the initiative New Public, the NGO DigiDemLab and many others.

If we want to se strong democratic societies in a digital age we cant wait with engaging in these conversations. We need to see innovation in public, civic and private environments that aims at building strong digital democracies and digital public spaces. We must strengthen our commitment to these issues in public and in civil society. Sweden celebrates 100 years of democracy. If we want to see a strong democracy in a hundred years time, we can not wait.

Thank You

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