Did we ever have a real public square? I’ve certainly used that phrase as shorthand for the sorts of public policy debates Americans conduct–debates that used to occur on newspaper editorial pages, and later by dueling television personalities. But the phrase itself calls up images of Greeks interacting in the Agora.
A column by Ezra Klein several months ago made me consider the realities of America’s approach to public argument, and our lack of anything that might be considered a replacement of that Greek Agora. As Elon Musk continues to destroy the utility of X (formerly Twitter) I’ve continued to mull over Klein’s observations.
As he began:
For what feels like ages, we’ve been told that Twitter is, or needs to be, the world’s town square. That was Dick Costolo’s line in 2013, when he was Twitter’s chief executive (“We think of it as the global town square”), and Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, used it, too, in 2018 (“People use Twitter as a digital public square”). Now the line comes from the “chief twit,” Elon Musk (“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square”).
Klein points out that the metaphor is inaccurate in at least three important ways: for one, there is not–and cannot be– a “global town square.” Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. (As Klein. notes, “What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.”)
Second, what makes a town square a public square is that it is governed by a public. It isn’t just a square in town, and it isn’t the playthings of a “whimsical billionaire.” It lacks a profit motive. As Klein says, “A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.”
What matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.
Klein reminds readers of the rosy predictions that accompanied the introduction of our digital communication systems. More democracy, better inter-group relations, broader understandings…I will readily admit to subscribing to rosy predictions that–as Klein reminds us–have utterly failed to materialize.
Instead, the cost of our enhanced connection and information “has been the deterioration of our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.”
In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted….
Our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or a platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.
Twitter and Facebook and a multitude of other digital platforms make it easy to talk–but incredibly hard to listen and reflect.
We do not make our best decisions, as individuals or as a collective, when our minds are most active and fretful. And yet “active and fretful” is about as precise a description as I can imagine of the Twitter mind. And having put us in an active, fretful mental state, Twitter then encourages us to fire off declarative statements on the most divisive possible issues, always with one eye to how quickly they will rack up likes and retweets and thus viral power. It’s insane.
It’s one of the thorniest issues we face: how do we create a viable we from so many diverse I’s…without imposing on the fundamental rights of those diverse individuals?
Klein’s essay–which I encourage you to read in its entirety–reinforced my belief that our current problems are exacerbated by the information environment we inhabit.
How do we fix that environment?Comments