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January 16, 2007

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Allyson Stewart

Given the rapidly evolving, decentralized nature of digital technologies, can the effort to “signpost” or designate public spaces on the internet (à la Sunstein) be sustained?

In answering this question from a sociocultural viewpoint, the need for general interest public spaces on the internet should be defined before evaluating the likelihood of their sustained existence.

According to Cass Sunstein, public "general interest intermediaries" such as the New York Times, or CNN News, fulfill two primary conditions necessary for a functioning democracy:

1) General interest intermediaries expose citizens to potentially controversial opinions before the severity of a contended issue elevates, and

2) Hold culture together through the provision of common material to unify the discussion and knowledge of a diverse population.

If the need for public spaces supports these foundations of democracy, it seems that the need for establishing public spaces will be a compelling cause for government to undertake.

From the consumer or citizen's perspective, which should be distinguished, (but for these purposes I will not) the need for public spaces may not seem so crucial. Personalization, including the likes of the engraving on the back of an Ipod, personal online radio stations like Pandora.com, or news aggregators like NetVibes.com, are a rampant phenomenon in American culture. We cannot expect an outcry for more generic, less personally relevant material from the general public. The citizen-consumer who drives the producer's agenda will likely cause not an inflation but a continued drop in general interest public media online. So the decentralization of the technologies will not easily result in decentralized regulation of its spaces, because consumers are already avid filterers, interested in having every option to choose from.

When it comes to enforcing negative rights, however, governments will maintain a crucial role in shaping the architecture within which netizens can continue to build their culture, because "architectures create behaviors."

That being said, maintaining a viable general interest social space is socially important and probably the best approach to doing so is through the aggregation of related material providers.

As political sentiments transcend national borders, primarily through the internet, global society ought to officially restructure the role of traditional political discourse, That is for example, perhaps if governments were provided with a section of a newspaper such as indymedia.com, public interaction with the State would be brought into a public space rather than distributed passively through traditional intermediary media.

The genuine quality of such an interaction is the variety of online architecture that can be designed to meet the social demand for realistic interaction, which will partly ensure the sustainability of the traditional public space and the functional public body.

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