One of the English words most in need rehabilitation these days is the word “public.” I have to confess that though I hear the word all the time, and think about it regularly, I don’t know how it needs to be rehabilitated. But I am certain it does.
Historically, the most obvious thing one could say about the word “public” was that it is not “private.” That distinction, however, hardly holds anymore, as the “private”—whether in the form of private lives, private capital, or private information—now fills our political and social lives, such that the distinction between the private and the public makes increasingly less sense. It is not just that the most “public” controversies today—for example, the Donald Sterling debacle—tend to involve the “public” exposure of “private” lives, it is that many of our most pressing political and social problems today are inextricably tied to private interests, private choices, and privacy.
But the problem with “public” is not just that the ancient dialectic on which it rests—public versus private—is outmoded. There is also a new meaning of “public” now in wide circulation, operating (as almost all language does) at the level of unexamined common sense. “Public” is now used as a synonym for “open.”
Let me offer an example. A few weeks back I was invited, with several other faculty, to a meeting with a program officer from a major foundation to discuss ways to make humanistic scholarship more public. What struck me about our conversation, which was quite lively, was that most people in the room seemed to assume that the main barrier to a public life for humanistic scholarship was access or openness. The thinking went like this: University presses, which publish most long-form humanistic scholarship, put up physical and financial barriers to a “public” life for scholarship. That is, print books have limited runs and cost money, sometimes quite a bit of money. Therefore these books sit on library shelves for only a few specialists to read. The solution, many in the room seemed to assume, was to convince university presses to “go digital,” with the funding agency with whom we were meeting would using its money to offset the financial loss presses would incur by going digital.
The problem of a public life for humanistic scholarship was one that the program officer presented. The foundation wanted to figure out how to invest their money in such a way as to help the humanities “go public.” But for virtually everybody in the room this meant “going digital,” making humanities work openly accessible. Openness—or open access—was the assumed key to a public life for humanistic scholarship.
But making something openly accessible does not make it public. To make something accessible or “open” in the way we talk about it today does not assume, on the level of norms, making it legible, debatable, let alone useful to non-specialists. There are millions of studies, papers, and data sets that are openly accessible but that nevertheless do not have a public life. The U.S. government, no less, has invested in various “openness” initiatives over the past two decades. These projects are presented as democratic gestures to the “public,” but they do little more than allow governing agencies to display their democratic credentials and grant a few specialists access to documents and data. To make something open or accessible is not to make it public.
What would it mean to make humanistic scholarship or government data or, for that matter, computing code, truly public? One clue does come to us from antiquity: The Latin word publicus meant “of the people.” Publicus was an attribute, a quality or feature of a person, thing, action, or situation, rather than the thing itself. It did not, mind you, mean that the person, thing, action, or situation was authorized by, or somehow the consequence of, the majority. That is, publicus was not a synonym for "democratic." Rather, it meant that the person, thing, action, or situation was plausibly representative "of the people," such that the people could engage it in a useful and productive political manner.
The question of how to make something public concerns how to endow it with a quality that could be attributed to “the people”? Clearly, this would mean taking seriously matters of "design" or what Cicero called "style," such that the "public thing" (in Latin, the res publica) is first of all legible (able to be "read" if not fully understood), second of all in some sense subject to discourse and debate (and thus subject to political deliberation), and third of all socially useful. This means thinking long and hard about “the people” themselves: their habits, their tastes, their interests, their schedules, their aptitudes, and so on. While “openness” may in certain circumstances be part of that which builds up to a “public” quality, I would venture to say that openness or access is not even necessary. Cicero, for one, saw “public” life as one that was styled in such a way as to be of the people but not necessarily exposed or “open” to the people. Public speeches, public events, and public figures could—like some public art today—be a bit opaque (legible enough, but not necessarily fully understandable) but still be “of the people.” Moreover, certain information and deliberation may need to be kept secret for good reasons—for example, having to do with the fair administration of justice (think of a jury deliberating behind closed doors)—but that information and deliberation can still be public according to the criteria above.
Indeed, openness is relatively easy; publicity is hard. Making something open is but an act; making something public is an art.
Our digital moment is a triumphal one for “openness.” But “open” is not public. If we are to really push the digital into the public, we need go well beyond questions of access, openness, and transparency and start asking how it is that the digital might take on a quality that is “of the people.”