While the concept of “public space” has been around since ancient times, the landscape has turned digital, resulting in a confrontation between the so-called “elite” on the one hand and those fighting for a just society on the other.
“We have come to describe these spaces where communities create meaning in common as public space,” said Dennis Smith, speaking at an ongoing international symposium on digital justice.
Smith, who served for more than four decade as a mission coworker of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Latin America, is also former president of the World Association for Christian Communication.
“When elites attempt to control public space it is not uncommon for them to stigmatize or even criminalize difference,” he said, adding that the emphasis on consumerism rather than sustainability has negatively affected—or even infected—society.
“Such an emphasis on the individual and their capacity to consume has contributed to a social imaginary where both the powerful and the powerless are consumed by the power of capital,” he said. “Neo-liberal consumerist ideas are so deeply embedded in many communities today that many people and the political leaders that represent them cannot conceive that other values are possible.”
In an era in which digital conglomerates consolidate their control over large-scale data collection and manipulation, it’s difficult to even define public space, Smith reflected.
“Here, we ask, how are the boundaries of membership set? Who sets the rules of engagement? How does the community decide what issues are to be raised and how are they to be decided?”
While social media has created the possibility for all kinds of new public spaces to emerge, those that do emerge tend to be infected with a mercenary virus, he said. “Now that most of humankind has access to digital and online social media, the stakes for excluded and minority sectors of society are high,” he said. “To be silenced, to be made invisible, can be a death sentence.”
In many areas, the battle for public space has reached a boiling point: “This is likely to be a major confrontation in the coming years,” said Smith.
His reflections were part of the opening remarks during a session in which communicators from across the globe were considering case studies, challenges and solutions to defining and protecting public space in a digital world.
Embert Charles, president of the World Association for Christian Communication, reflected that part of defining public space is also defining the groups that are battling for that space. “Perhaps we also need to desegregate the concept of elites,” he said. “You probably have the economic, the political—in fact you even have the social media elite now, as you consider the definition of what or who are the elites in our society today.”
As communicators presented their successes and obstacles in creating equitable public space, Charles commented that at least some governments are willing to help foster such equity.
“There is a willingness in some cases but they are constrained in a number of cases by the structure and the characteristics of this media landscape we have inherited,” he said.