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Democratizing “public space”

Published on 19 November 2013
Updated on 06 March 2023

I have attended a seminar on the subject of “Democratizing public space”. This is the text of my intervention. I argued, somewhat paradoxically, that “public space” is shaped by “what is not seen” more than by the explicit will of the people or rulers. My thoughts are an attempt to flesh out BASTIAT’s recommendation, namely to study what is “not seen” rather than what is “seen”.[1]


One of the many amusing things about humans is that they can debate endlessly, and sometimes constructively, about vague notions. “Public space” is one of them.[2] While we may share a core intuition, we differ widely as to the specifics. “Public space” for me is a “living” and “evolving” phenomenon – albeit a metaphor. As we interact, we give order and structure to these relations. Swaying together with the music soon yields to the heightened pleasure of the intricate dance – the quadrille, the minuet, or the courtly waltz.

I’d eschew the discussion as to whether the music drives the dance, or the dance the music. To me, the tension between the two is the driver. This allows me to sustain my reputation as “contrarian” by asking: does it matter how we “make” the public space evolve?

John LENNON famously commented: Life is what happens while we are busy planning other things. It is worth keeping in the back of our minds, while we debate the changes we would like to make in the structures of all these institutions so dear to our heart – our identity is tied up in them.

Taking a cue from the likes of BRAUDEL, MARX, TODD and many others I’d argue that deep and hidden forces also shape the evolution of the “public space” Public space is more than international institutions. To those who claim having shaped the new balance I’ll oppose the definition of the good politician: She is the one that makes the inevitable happen.

In the following I’ll give three good reasons for not trusting predictions too much:

· Small causes have large effects, and are numerous

· Enablers and niche construction transform the social world

· Transformative empowerment is what moves people.

1. We can’t predict – there are many, mostly small, causes

Eisenhower and Khrushchev agreed on an exchange of students in 1958. Two apparatchiks came from Moscow to Columbia University and returned, making a career within the Party. One of these two was Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of perestroika for Gorbachev. He admitted, late in life, that his American experience had been transformative.[3]

The West tends to plump for mono-causal explanations – an analogy from the inanimate world. If we recognize multi-causality, we flatten it by positing ceteris paribus. We freeze the world as we predict. Alas, the world won’t stand still and say “cheese”. For us, cause and effect are comparable: the image is a billiard ball hitting another. But what if a small cause had a large effect? What if the effect was delayed?

In the biological, social world pluri-causality reigns, and small causes yield big effects. The Sinic world, on the other hand, speaks of silent transformations, and is probably closer to the mark than our dualistic way of thinking.[4]

Silent transformations – when have you begun to age? We suddenly realize the fact. You sure remember falling in love. Do you remember falling out of love? Yet we all do. Only a handful of cells in your body are left of those you were born with. Are you the same person? This is a deep question of logic.

Predictions fail, because many small causes make big and unforeseen effects happen, sometimes after long delays.

2. We can’t predict – Enablers and niche creation

The first domesticated animal was most probably the dog, 20’000 years ago, and here in Europe. After the dog came sheep and goats. With a good dog one could herd 100 animals. The horse was domesticated for meat. Once we learned how to ride it, we could herd 500 animals. Small transhumance was no longer an option – not enough grass nearby. Women invented the chariot (they drove it after all, the men were on the horses) – long range movement became possible. Big nomadism emerged. This led to long distance raiding – the origins of warfare. Blame war on your dog?

This is an example of enablers. Technologies, ideas, institutions, and people are all enablers. We use them before we understand them, or before we can spot their hidden, long term effects. Enablers add degrees of freedom and choices to our future – which is Amartya SEN’s definition of development.[5] This interplay makes for indeterminacy. Contingencies and connections as well as the sequencing of the steps determine the “path-dependent outcome.”

Ever since DARWIN we know that the environment shapes life – creating diversity without direction. Life also shapes the environment – creating niches in which life enfolds. This is how the first algae came on land, and slowly populated continents.[6]

I now introduce the concept of “niche creation.” Following Thomas KUHN[7] I differentiate between puzzle and problem solving.

· Puzzles we solve by using current paradigms; the rules are already set, and one only use skill in manipulating the rules in order to obtain the desired result;[8]

· For solving problems we create new rules, that is, we create a framework that allows us to make sense of it. The new rules may need revision or refinement, as new observations are made.

Puzzles don’t just drift into becoming problems. There is a discontinuity, a qualitative separation between the two. Using a metaphor from evolutionary ecology, the construction or discovery of new rules creates a “niche” a self-contained space defined by them. This new space is different from the old space, and in KUHN’s sense, incommensurable. Problem solving is a creative hence unpredictable and incomparable act.

This not all – it is just the beginning. Once created, the rules create skills – or mentalities. Over time, in some strange way, the rules take hold of us and prejudge the way we view the world. DAWKINS speaks of memes that replicate themselves just like genes.[9] This analogy is misleading. Niches are populated by numerous actors, each with own goals. Within the niche turf wars can take place. Mentalities emerge: mentalities can migrate from problem to problem, as old wine in new bottles.

The outcome? Wholly indeterminate, but most often it all leads to “blow-back”, or unintended consequences.[10]

What can be done? While the outcome of niche creation may be undetermined, much can be learned by studying the process closely.

I see a welcome step in this direction. Just this week the Economist has published a long article on how civil wars start, develop, and end – or spread to neighboring countries. The report does not deal with the rights or wrongs of any conflict, or assesses it in terms of human rights. The article also highlights that in settling conflicts “anything goes” – provided it works. Each solution is unique, and the contingencies are overwhelming – as well as often determining. Timing is often of the essence.

Studying processes comes at a price. We must forego direction – the ideal, the principled solution. The indeterminacy can’t be resolved. If you focus on the ideal, the process will have you. If you focus on process, the ideal evaporates.

3. We can’t predict – empowerment

When did the American Revolution begin? The conventional view is: 4th July 1776. We celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The historian Timothy BREEN thinks otherwise. It was 6th September 1775. On that day bells throughout New England spread the rumor that the British were attacking Boston. All over, people took up their arm, and marched. The estimate was 50,000. They revealed each other their political intentions; insurgents and transformed themselves into patriots.

The moment when individual intentionalities transform into collective intentionality is emotional. It is the “yes we can” moment. Rituals are great for that. Collective intentionalities yield empowerment. How we get to empowerment is a deep mystery. Some say it is the “mirror neurons” we seem to have. It is our “theory of mind” – our ability to observe a person and up to a point read his intentions. Empowerment is transformative – it’s like an epiphany. Empowerment is not expedient triangulation of interests. Empowerment and division of labor are antithetic, by the way.

Circling back to the issue of “democratizing social space”

About 3000 years ago, Polynesians set out to populate the Pacific niches – all of its islands. Within 1000 years or so, they had succeeded – by observing the navigating process closely: they read the waves, the winds, the birds, the clouds, and the flotsam. They had a sense of direction: the stars, which they followed with an ingenious sextant.

The evolution of “social space” is a complex emergent process. It can’t be predicted. Waiting for this kind of change to happen, there is a lot can be done:

(a) Study the process closely

Stop worrying about right or wrong, ideals, or efficiency of institutions. Study the process closely, trying to understand, from experience, what works. Go for what works in the context. Use discernment, sense applied to the context. Never take the existing niches for granted. Practice niche creation.

(b) Go for legitimacy

The operative side of empowerment is legitimacy. To the extent that people bring about change, people must agree – give the process legitimacy. Study the level of legitimacy in the social space. Only legitimacy yields empowerment. No two spaces are equal, however. Some require a high level of legitimacy, others less. It all depends.

[1] Frédéric BASTIAT (1850): What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.

[2] “Public” space suggests a dichotomy – the juxtaposition with “private” space. But there is at least another category: what the French call “terrain vague” – unattributed space. Children used gloriously to play in such spaces, before they were closed for reasons of efficiency. For a feel of what it was like, see: Yasushi INOUE (1997): Nuages garancde. Ph. Picquier, Arles.

[3] Andrei LANKOV (2013): The real North Korea. Life and politics in the failed Stalinist utopia. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4] François JULLIEN (2009): Les transformations silencieuses. Chantiers, I. Grasset, Paris.

[5] Amartya SEN (1999): Development as freedom. Anchor Books, New York.

[6] This is why Malthus is fundamentally wrong – in the long run. Biological life creates the means of its own survival. This is even more pronounced when cultural phenomena emerge. Humanity has moved to 7 billion people by exploiting more resources, but also by fundamentally altering the environment to secure the survival of the group.

[7] Thomas S. KUHN (1963):The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[8] Take Sudoku: we are given the starting position with a few scattered numbers, and we apply its rules skillfully in order to achieve a predetermined result. Someone has been there before and is challenging is to join him. We are not on a journey of discovery.

[9] Richard DAWKINS (2006): The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford. In fact they diffuse into a tradition which has little in common with the original but for the name.

[10] See e.g. Chalmers JOHNSON (2000): Blowback. The costs and consequences of American Empire. Little, Brown, New York.

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