Anil Dash, Race, and Privately Owned Public Spaces

Anil Dash recently gave a presentation at Harvard’s Berkman Center and I wanted briefly map out just a couple of my reactions to what he said. You can get some context and read all about the presentation here, there is a nice outline of the talk here, and you can read Anil’s bio here. I’ve also embedded a video of his full  presentation below.

Anil Dash as a Person of Color

I’d like to start with a little blurb that Anil uses to introduce himself. He writes…

The highest use of new technologies is to empower and connect people who aren’t born with the privilege of access to the institutions that define our culture…

I think it’s important to note that there are not many people of color working this field and even fewer who give voice to the reality that, at it’s best technology, is not for hipster iPhone types, or Linux fan-boys, but for those individuals and populations that are under serverd served, neglected, and oppressed in our society.  Too often discussions around technology focus on the cutting edge features in expensive high end products, instead of examining how perhaps less exciting technologies are successfully  or unsuccessfully, being utilized to assist and support everyone in society, especially those on the lowest rungs of our socioeconomic latter.

Mr. Dash’s perspective as a person of color, and the associated socioeconomic position that being a person of color in the United States often entails,  again comes to the forefront when he sets up the premise of his presentation around public vs. private spaces.

I am very flattered and excited to be here but… one of the things that is probably not as familiar to all you that get to sit in this room on a regular basis, or the buildings around here, is this is an intimidating place to be. I didn’t graduate from college, I’m the son of immigrants, this is not the place I’m supposed to be, speaking… it’s very easy to forget how, even a space as welcoming as this one, can seem intimidating and closed off to the vast majority of people in society. (7:41)

This blunt acknowledgement of our cultural reality is rare in these types of presentations and even rarer in discussions around technology  where aspects humanity and of class are often dismissed, ignored, or seen as irrelevant  However I believe Dash’s observation to be extremely pertinent. As someone who comes from the “augmented reality” perspective  as opposed to the “digital dualism” camp, I believe that the patterns and cycles of oppression and of poverty, etc. that exist in our physical world naturally bleed into our emerging digital online culture unless proactive steps are taken to combat the process. Mr. Dash seems to agree with this perspective in the way that he relies on his analogy of “privately owned public spaces” in New York City to the virtual spaces of Facebook and Youtube. (If you are unfamiliar with the augmented reality vs. digital dualism debate I highly recommend reading the blog Cyborgology which examines the intersection of humanity and technology).

There is a lot more to be said on the topic of how the homogeneity of ‘thinkers’ in the tech field impacts the way we use and understand technology, but I’ll leave that analysis for future posts.

A Public Space… for Some People

In our physical world Mr. Dash notes the importance of public spaces and how “privately owned public spaces” in New York City may appear public to some portions of the population but are lacking in some of the key features that we expect of a public space. As discussed above, these semi-public spaces may feel public, open and welcoming to some people, but not to all people. Taking Mr. Dash’s example of a university campus, the comfort of lobbies and  lounges of a university may feel open to everyone for those students and faculty that are accustomed to that environment, but those same spaces may feel intimidating and closed off for people who do not have college educated individuals in their social circles. However the issue goes well beyond that. It is not only that certain groups of people may feel uncomfortable in these ‘public spaces’ on a university campus but in fact those spaces may well deny access to certain groups. Sure any young clean shaven white man with a backpack can wander through most college campuses, but an older less well groomed, or dressed, person of color would surely be confronted by security and asked to leave if he/she chose lie out in the sun on some university lawn. The same example can be made of these ‘public’ lobbies or atriums in some New York City buildings. To a man in a suit these spaces are public for all to enjoy, for the tattered houseless man these spaces are most definitely seen as private.

This effect is especially pernicious because to the majority of people, or at least the people with privilege, see no distinction between true public spaces where the constitutional rights of every citizen is protected, and these private-public spaces where certain groups are continually descriminated against. It is the fact that there is an illusion of publicness, and that the privately institutionalized rules are invisible to most people, that make this system especially problematic.

In the online world this type of public-for-some effect more often comes into play through censoring certain speech and actions instead of types of people but Facebook’s strict gender policy, or Google+’s strict name policy, are two good examples where certain groups are not welcome in these online ‘public’ spaces.

You are free to do what you want… as long as you do what we say

In the online world lots of sites are seen or regarded as public squares where people can freely share their opinion. Sure Youtube takes down videos that violate copyright infringement, but most people believe that they have a right to express their lawful speech on these social sites. This could not be further from the truth. Mr. Dash points this out when he notes how sites like Facebook are free to allow, or ban, whichever type of speech or individual message they choose. Of course Facebook wants to sell their image as a place where you can freely express yourself, after all the entire concept of Facebook is that you are the central part of it and that you own your profile, as opposed to the reality that you are only temporarily renting their service at Facebooks discretion. Again like the public-for-some phenomenon, Facebook and other similar sites, do their best to obscure the fact that at the end of the day they make the decision on what you can or cannot post.

No Free Speech on Facebook

One important feature of public spaces, that Mr. Dash points out, is the right to transgress. In a true public space individuals have the right to gather, to protest, and to resist. However as Mr. Dash also notes the right to transgression goes beyond marches and protests and includes acts likes playing a guitar in the park without a license, have an impromptu parade, performing certain types of public art and other acts that make our everyday life a little more colorful.

However in almost all of the online spaces where we communicate with one another (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc.) all of the speech on these platforms are subject to the approval of the intermediaries themselves. When posting cat pictures, and talking about your weekend plans, these platforms give the appearance of being open and hands off, but we must be conscious that types of speech that threaten certain status quos can easily and legally be squelched by these services. While this might sound conspiratorial Facebook frequently takes down content that it deems as either hate speech, self harm, harassment, nudity, intellectual property, or violent. These may seem like reasonable terms, but the judgement of what crosses these lines is up to Facebook alone with no kind of appeals process. One recent example has been Facebook’s take downs of breast feeding photos. Youtube has very recently undergone a related controversy where it apparently has given corporate partners like UMG the ability to take down perfectly legal videos if it wishes. This is all just to say that your legal rights to free speech bare no significance in these online “privately owned public spaces” despite the fact that Facebook, Twitter etc advertise themselves as open forums that users have ownership over (again it is this misconception, or rather deception, that makes the situation uniquely troublesome).

Conclusion

While Anil Dash touches on many more interesting points in his presentation, including the disappearance of open metadata and interoperability, the financially driven corruption of linking, feeds vs traditional web pages, and how open internet proponents lost the argument for their vision with the public, I found the discussions of online freedom and of inequity in the digital space to be the most thought provoking. I would highly recommend viewing Dash’s entire presentation because he more eloquently ties together a longer narrative describing the sorry state of affairs of our online community, and offers some suggestions on how we might reverse these trends.

  • Edgar Sánchez

    We can’t permit the discrimination at this time when technology and telecoms allows the free comunication for everyone that can have access to. We deserve, as a human right, the free entry to the public contents.