Hyper-Public Symposium at Berkman

Last week on June 10 a range of different disciplines came eye to eye to discuss the changing concepts of privacy and public space at the Hyper-Public symposium. Taking note of the influence of design in today’s connected world the discussions unfolded from many different perspectives. Please have a look here for a nice graphical overview of the discussion, video material as well as interviews with most of the speakers (by the wonderful YaM team!).

One overarching theme of the day dealt with defining privacy and how this has changed over time. From a rather static concept –where privacy was mainly linked to a place or ‘being indoors or inside’ or – it is during recent years more considered to be a practice, as something that you do. Furthermore, in these earlier times where people were ‘private by default and public by effort’, today it is rather the opposite; people are rather ‘public by default and private by effort’, so claims danah boyd. The act of being private, in other words, must be intentionally undertaken agrees Paul Dourish. This is especially true in the omnipresence digital world of today.

When approached through an architectural perspective similar trends are visible and were vividly discussed during the symposium. There was a clear focus on how to provide private space within the public domain, which shows that in architecture the default mode is gradually shifting to a more public rather than private default. The current challenge lies in creating a space where people can choose to be private while at the same time being public. Jeff Huang,  currently designing a new campus in Ras Al Khaimah, convincingly argued that there should be less necessity to design privacy if, and only if, ‘publicness’ is properly designed which entails that 1) no one owns the data; and 2) the data is accessible to everyone.

This then brings up the question of changing behaviors and shifting social norms that emerge when people are starting to navigate these new spaces. While often being (wrongfully) accused of not caring about privacy youth are discovering and finding ways to carry themselves in this environment. By using language and references to pop culture unknown to their parents they create digital boundaries and by doing so create a private space within a very public environment as danah boyd explained.

This environment then encapsulates both public and private which should be defined as part of a continuum rather than as a dichotomy as the connecting speakers Latanya Sweeney, Gerhard Buurman and Herbert Burkert also elaborated on. Unfortunately, this dichotomized perspective of private and public kept popping up during the day much to the frustration of many people in the audience as well as those following the symposium on Twitter. This shows that the discussion as such needs to take place more often (also, or even especially) in public spaces in order for it to move beyond the probably outdated dichotomized approach to private and public space, at least in the digital realm. Hyperpublic on Twitter via Wordle

The symposium was attended by much more than its 120 real life visitors as over 3000 tweets by more than 3200 unique twitterers* were thrown into the public arena hashtagged #hyperpublic. The conference was even briefly trending in the Boston area. And while there were many compliments concerning the quality of information provided from the most active tweeps, there was a shared concern –both on- as offline– that the discussion in the room focused more on privacy protection, than on designing public space. This was promptly exemplified when people noticed there was no live stream of the event.

The Wordle cloud of the symposium’s tweets gives a nice visual summary of the main debate showing that privacy (concerns) dominated the conversation online as well, followed closely by public versus private discussions and definitions. Interwoven in this were the connections many made between private and public versus data and people. Or rather the notion that all parties involved need to take up responsibility in creating, maintaining and (re)designing hyperpublic space as was also illustrated by Adam Greenfield, Betsy Masiello and Ethan Zuckerman for example. Governments and corporations should take responsibility concerning the protection of their citizens and customers and provide them with the tools to act publicly in (now) private domains as well. Citizens and customers should be aware that their changing behaviors in and use of hyperpublic space influences its very existence. The most retweeted comment, originally posted by Jonathan Zittrain, captures the friction that exists between the different domains eloquently: “if what you get online is for free, you’re not the customer – you’re the product”. Hopefully, though, this cycle will be broken by cooperation rather than coercion <link to talk Martin Nowak>.

In the end, Urs Gasser‘s call, with which he openend the conference, was taken up and a step in the right direction has been carefully made:

“In an environment where the lines between private and public spaces are blurring, technology is developing so rapidly, user behavior is in constant flux, complex feedback loops among technology, law, economics, and behavior exist, and where norms become increasingly contextual, fragmented, and ad hoc, our responsibility and challenge as designers – including law- and policy-makers as well as other professionals – should include the creation of advanced spaces for negotiation and conversation about privacy and its boundaries, the exploration of new types of interfaces among spheres and layers, and the creation of hybrid private/public spaces.”

*of who approximately 200 posted original messages, which formed the basis for this word cloud

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