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Transforming public space

Published on 19 November 2013
Updated on 05 January 2024

I have attended a seminar on the subject of democratising public space. Below is the text of my intervention. I argued, somewhat paradoxically, that public spaces are shaped more by unseen influences than by what people or leaders explicitly decide. My thoughts are an attempt to flesh out Frédéric Bastiat’s recommendation, namely to study what is ‘not seen’ rather than what is ‘seen’ (see That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen: The Unintended Consequences of Government Spending by Frédéric Bastiat)

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.1 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. Public space is complex and ever-changing, like a dance that evolves with the music. 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?’

Public space transformation: Praça Mauá, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Urb-i/Google Street View
Public space transformation: Praça Mauá, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Urb-i/Google Street View).

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 Fernand Braudel, Karl Marx, Emmanuel 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 to have shaped the new balance, I’ll oppose the definition of a good politician: ‘the one who makes the inevitable happen’.

Predictions about how public spaces will change are often wrong

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. Small causes have large effects and are numerous

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 (see The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov).

The West tends to plump for monocausal explanations – an analogy from the inanimate world. If we recognise multicausality, 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 and social world, pluricausality 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 (see The Silent Transformations by François Jullien).

Dream and Reality (triptych) by Angelo Morbelli (Gallerie d'Italia)
Dream and Reality (triptych) by Angelo Morbelli (Gallerie d’Italia).

Silent transformations, such as beginning to age. We suddenly realise 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. Enablers and niche construction transform the social world

The first domesticated animal was most probably the dog, 20,000 years ago, 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 also Amartya Sen’s definition of ‘development’ (see Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen). This interplay makes for indeterminacy. Contingencies and connections, as well as the sequencing of the steps determine the path-dependent outcome.

 Adult, Female, Person, Woman, Art, Animal, Horse, Mammal, Weapon
A Mongol horseman from the13th century (The Collector).

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.2

I now introduce the concept of ‘niche creation’. Following Thomas Kuhn (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn), I differentiate between puzzles and problem-solving.

Puzzles we solve by using current paradigms; the rules are already set, and one may only use skill in manipulating the rules in order to obtain the desired result.3 For problem-solving, we create new rules, that is, we create a framework that allows us to make sense of the problem. 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 is 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 (see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins). This analogy is misleading. Niches are populated by numerous actors, each with their 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 (see Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson). So, 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. The Economist published a long article on how civil wars start, develop, and end, or spread to neighbouring countries. The report does not deal with the rights or wrongs of any conflict, or assess 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 and often determining. Timing is often of the essence. Studying processes comes at a price. We must forego direction: the ideal, 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. Transformative empowerment is what moves people

When did the American Revolution begin? The conventional view is 4 July 1776. We celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The historian Timothy Breen thinks otherwise. It was 6 September 1775. On that day, bells throughout New England spread the rumour that the British were attacking Boston. This alarm stirred a massive and spontaneous mobilisation of colonial militia and ordinary citizens, who believed they were facing an immediate threat. The estimate was 50,000. They revealed to each other their political intentions; insurgents transformed themselves into patriots.

 Art, Painting, Person, Adult, Female, Woman, Bride, Wedding, Animal, Horse, Mammal, Boat, Transportation, Vehicle, Face, Head
Evacuation of Boston, 1776. During the American Revolution, American troops besieged British-held Boston from April 1775 to March 1776 (American Revolution Podcast).

The moment when individual intentionality transforms into collective intentionality is emotional. It is the ‘yes we can’ moment. Rituals are great for that. Collective intentionality yields 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 labour are antithetic, by the way.

Democratising social space

About 3,000 years ago, Polynesians set out to populate the Pacific niches – all of its islands. Within 1,000 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 that can be done:

a. Study the process closely

Stop worrying about right or wrong, ideals, or the efficiency of institutions. Study the process closely, trying to understand, from experience, what works. Go for what works in a 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 – giving 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. ‘Public’ space suggests a dichotomy: a juxtaposition with ‘private’ space. But there is at least one other 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 Nuages garance by Yasushi Inoue.
  2. 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 seven billion people by exploiting more resources, but also by fundamentally altering the environment to secure the survival of the group.
  3. Take sudoku; we are given the starting position with a few scattered numbers and we apply its rules skilfully in order to achieve a predetermined result. Someone has been there before and is challenging us to join him. We are not on a journey of discovery.

This post was published on DeepDip.

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