My daughter played a display piano in our pharaonic shopping mall, and received five dollars from a passer-by: a funny incident. The next day, we related the story to our son who is away at school, but it was already old news to him.
The reason he knew is because our daughter had posted the whole thing on Facebook. The reason his mother and I didn’t know he knew is because, at the censorious age of 16, our daughter doesn’t friend adults of any sort – much less of the parental variety.
We are increasingly living our private lives in public, and have become correspondingly obsessed with finding the perfect “setting” to the audience which has earned the right to our life’s story. In Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis observes that this is true of individuals but also of companies and governments. By choice or circumstance, all are performing a high-tech version of the Dance of the Seven Veils, revealing more and more information once considered confidential. Not surprisingly, all feel a degree of concern – amounting to panic in some quarters – about revealing too much, becoming vulnerable or unlovely in their nakedness.
I should mention that Public Parts earned notice initially as the object of a very public food fight between Jarvis and Evgeny Morozov, following the latter’s brutal review of the book in The New Republic. That review can be found here; Jarvis’ responses are here and here. Rather than add to the shouting, let me make a couple of observations on the controversy before tiptoeing away.
First, I don’t suppose either man ever encountered a form of attention he didn’t enjoy. Second, Morozov, while no doubt intelligent and well informed, assumes the pose of an insufferable prig – and may, I fear, actually be one. Finally, the substance of the dispute – the “cyber-skeptic versus cyber-utopian” hardy perennial – has been ritualized until it resembles the intellectual equivalent of professional wrestling, with choreographed arguments and loud, hoarse voices imitating excitement.
So let us move on.
Jarvis should be considered an apostle rather than an analyst of publicness. A legion of advocates, he rightly notes, have converted “privacy,” a vague concept of recent vintage, into a universal human right. Jarvis, for balance, prefers to tack in the opposite direction. He preaches the goodness of conducting life and business out in the open, where all can see. The resulting transparency is a much older cultural ideal than privacy: it harks back to the classical republics, which placed the town square at the center of the citizen’s existence.
Today, of course, publicness is powered by social media. The town square has become a virtual space. This changes dramatically the character of the community which gathers there: compared to, say, the citizen’s assembly of ancient Athens, it is less rule-directed, more fleeting, more heterodox.
A great advantage of the transparent life, Jarvis maintains, is the ability to connect with such ad hoc communities for information and support. He cites as an example his own bout with prostate cancer. Jarvis blogged fearlessly about his condition, his treatment, his questions and anxieties, and he received from his readers much reassuring information and comfort which was not forthcoming from the medical profession.
The Jarvis support group was called into being by the public exposure of a very private condition. This works for extroverts, of which Jarvis appears to be an extreme case. However, such suffering in public would feel like a nightmare to an introvert like me. It would multiply my misery by the size of the observing audience, regardless of the latter’s intent or information. More importantly, in the digital universe the extrovert-introvert divide is replicated objectively by the choice between true identity and anonymity. The new communication technologies might make it possible for the private person to live out his life in public, but they also allow for the identity of public actors to be shrouded in mystery.
Like transparency, anonymity has a long tradition in Western cultural life. It is a peculiar form of publicness, both open and secretive, often associated with fear of censorship or punishment. Thus the Egyptian with the charming nom de blog of Sandmonkey revealed, to an English-language audience, many of his social and political activities over years of blogging – but he concealed his true name, Mahmoud Salem, until after the fall of the Mubarak regime. Public Parts has little to say about the digital reinvention of anonymity: maybe Jarvis can take up the subject in his blog.
In any case, Jarvis practices what he preaches. I learned more than I ever wanted to about the state of his penis (“my limp and leaky dick,” in the words of its owner). While, curiously, Jarvis refuses to reveal his total income, he hints broadly enough to plant a suspicion of bragging. My own reaction to these revelations – to be sure, an introvert’s – makes me think that effective publicness depends on adequate signaling of motive by means of style. If, like St. Francis, I strip off my worldly garments in front of the crowd, I can be taken for a totally honest person or an exhibitionist.
A key claim put forward by Jarvis is that publicness generates trust. Here Public Parts charges into the Armageddon of the digital revolution: the semi-apocalyptic conflict of accredited authority against a host of critical amateurs. This was always an unequal fight. Armed with the new information technologies, the public has advanced on the sacred precincts once reserved for experts. The great top-down institutions of modernity – government, universities, corporations, mass media, science – have lost the power to inspire reverence, and are now held in contempt. The moment belongs to the public, and the public is motivated by an almost cosmic disenchantment.
This creates a problem: how to discriminate between alternatives in a landscape stripped of authority.
The solution, for Jarvis, entails a radical transparency and greatly increased collaboration with the public. In business, transparency about a company’s internal workings becomes the antidote to the pseudo-manipulation of marketing and PR. Enlisting the customer’s participation counters, and may even dispel, the pall of disenchantment. The “radically public company,” Jarvis believes, will earn a reputation for sincerity and a loyal following for its brand. Trust will replace authority: a successful strategy for the new environment, but also, Jarvis makes clear, a moral gain.
Similar principles apply to government. It has grown too opaque and fond of secrets; it is also fearful of failure and thus intolerant of change. Jarvis would sweep away self-protective barriers: “outside of war, crime, and protecting the individual,” he writes, “there is no reason for public officials to hide what they know and do from their publics.”
In the existential struggle between the public and the old structures of authority, Jarvis is a participant, not an observer. At times, he makes it sound as if the public can bypass authority and strike out on its own. The larger argument of Public Parts, however, is that the conflict can only be resolved when authority regains the public’s trust by aligning its practices with those of the new information environment. Though optimistic in tone, Jarvis doesn’t directly venture an opinion about the cost of this transformation, possibly because he views it as inevitable. In the manner of a conqueror he proclaims, “Resistance is futile.”
It’s an easy guess that the collision with the public will transform the old institutions. The question is the social and political pain involved: whether the process will resemble gradual evolution or, as I suspect, an extinction event. (There are those who theorize that such a cataclysm has already struck the global economy.)
Because of their immense inherited weight, business and government have a vested interest in inertia. In this context, resistance may be futile in the long term, but rational for the moment. As an old government hand, I can attest to the accuracy of Jarvis’ portrayal of the bureaucracy – but he fails to note the profound emotional investment in existing institutions by the people who inhabit them. Even the most up-to-date bureaucrats, in my experience, will resist the advance of the public until retirement day.
Bending the massive structures of authority to the ideals promoted in Public Parts may well be impossible without a traumatic fracturing of the status quo.
I also confess to uncertainty about the central thesis of the book. Does publicness really engender trust? It’s intuitive that it should, but counterfactuals can be easily produced. For one, the present age of distrust rests uncomfortably atop a mountain of data bits: it’s as if the more we know, the less we like. Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky have argued that the scientific accumulation of knowledge multiplies the number of possible questions, and “expanding measurement only increases the area of ignorance.” If this is the case, transparency will inspire bewilderment and frustration instead of trust.
Particularly unsettling are the prospects for government. The extraordinary outcomes today demanded from politics, Paul Ormerod has shown, lie beyond the reach of human power. We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality. The more we expect to impose such outcomes on a complex world, the deeper our disenchantment will be. Transparency and citizen participation, in such circumstances, will only aggravate the friction between a triumphant public and its failed institutions. Modern government, outwardly so imposing, will be revealed in its nakedness to be a feeble and incapable organ, unable to rise to the hopes of the citizenry. The consequence is likely to be turbulence for every ruling principle, including liberal democracy.