Where is the Agora in a Virtualized Society?

In these times of isolation and social distancing, it is difficult to ignore the fact that humans are social beings with an indispensable need for interaction with other people. The ongoing pandemic has put this aspect of human existence into renewed focus. It is not an accident that great political scholars have devoted their lives’ work to thinking about how society should be organised in order to keep social peace. Two political-philosophical treatises are worth mentioning in this context: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes and The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli. They are both important in that they establish how society should be organized hierarchically in order to remain functional. But as important is the horizontal organization: the venues and mechanisms through which citizens interact among themselves, and the common time they spend together. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way we interact socially «de persona personalmente’ as the character Catarella in the famous Sicilian-based novels Detective Montalbano liked to say. But underneath this sudden dramatic change a shift in the nature of social interaction had been already under way. 

Historically, the temple and the marketplace as public spaces are as old as human settlement itself. But both of these had a primarily utilitarian rather than a political purpose. As Hannah Arendt remarks in The Human Condition: 

The hallmark of these non-political communities was that their public place was not a meeting place of citizens, but a market place where craftsmen could show and exchange their products.

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The Agora of Ancient Greece, by contrast, had a different purpose. At least in its ideal form, it was a place where citizens met not to trade and do business, but to discuss public affairs. It was the place where the political expression of the community took place, to the frustration of aspiring tyrants. To quote Hannah Arendt again:

In Greece, moreover, it was the ever-frustrated ambition of all tyrants to discourage the citizens from worrying about public affairs, from idling their time away in unproductive ago-reuein (speaking openly) and politeuesthai (living as a citizen, and to transform the agora into an assemblage of shops like the bazaars of oriental despotism (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition).

The places of reunion kept evolving over the centuries. One dramatic development regarding meeting points is the appearance of cafes in Europe, beginning in the city of Venice in the 17th century. While coffee houses had existed before in the Ottoman world and it is to that culture that they owe their origin, they were to play an important social and political role over the next 400 years, coinciding with the ascendance of the urban Bourgeoisie in Europe. More than just a place to pass idle time, they functioned as a locus of germination for cultural and political change (There is no need to retell here the role of famous Parisian, Viennese, and Berlin cafes as centers of meeting points of intellectuals, artists and journalists in the 19th and early 20th centuries). A recent article already pointed to the role that cafes and restaurants play in contemporary society.

With the rush to the suburbs that occurred in the mid-20th century, especially in the USA, a new place for social gathering developed: The Shopping Mall. This new Agora became the place to gather, to see and be seen on weekends and, until very recently, was one of the few venues for social encounter in the suburbs, along with coffee shop chains like Starbucks. But the spread of online shopping has pushed shopping malls in America towards disappearance. The consolidation of streaming services like Netflix has also meant the demise of cinemas, further reducing the possibilities of social interaction.

With the incessant shrinking of public spaces, modern life at the beginning of the 21st century remains focused on two pillars: The home and the workplace. The typical modern workplace is not a public space in the strict sense, and it is governed through hierarchical structures of power. However, it still serves as one of the few spaces of encounter outside of the domestic setting (the home of the nuclear family). The present Covid-19 pandemic has obviously transformed our working places drastically; but more than a sudden revolution, this has been the acceleration of a process that was already under way, enabled by technological advancements. The availability of high-speed internet connection has facilitated remote work. This was not possible 20 years ago when most internet connections were dial-in. Online collaboration tools have made it possible for teams to work efficiently from anywhere on earth. GitHub, a tool developed by the inventor of Linux, Linus Torvald, allows programmers to collaborate on writing computer code remotely, and video-conferencing tools like Zoom eliminate the need for face-to-face meetings. GoogleDocs, the tool we are using to write this very essay, not only allows for remote collaboration, but intelligently suggests spelling and grammar corrections. AI-based translation technology mediates collaboration across language barriers. 

The virtualization of the workplace, which had been a slow and steady process, became the modus operandi for companies and institutions all over the world virtually overnight with the Covid- 19 pandemic. Remote work became a necessity and also a convenience for those whose jobs allowed them to. Almost immediately after this shift, Human Resources in large corporations started contemplating the new workplace post-Covid. Corporate Executives discovered that this is a cost-effective way to run a company: No more paying for extremely expensive office real estate in Manhattan, London, Zurich, or Silicon Valley. Businesses still face important questions about the effectiveness of distributed teams in the long run, about workers’ morals, team cohesion and corporate loyalty. But we leave those questions about the New Work to the management consultants. The goal of this article is to raise the questions about the ramifications of this new mode of work on the individual, and on their extrapolation to the larger society.

But what is not to like about working remotely? Forever would be gone the awful commutes that waste precious hours from our days, the windowless offices with artificial lighting, and the annoying coworkers. It is difficult not to be lured to this nicer vision of life. Indeed, many localities are aiming to attract remote workers. The state of Vermont offers nice economic incentives to those who move to live there and work remotely. One can easily imagine the glory of living in a reasonably large house in Vermont and instead of commuting using that time for long walks in the woods or for skiing in winter. In Europe, the Greek government is also providing incentives for remote workers. Clearly, many people would love this dream situation of living and working in a remote greek island, like the poet Leonard Cohen did in his youth. Except that by losing the physical workplace we will be losing one of the few remaining venues for social interaction with all that it entails in loss of social connections.

The Internet held the promise of being the ultimate Agora: a global space that expands the scope of encounter and dialogue without boundaries. In its early days, the Internet was indeed close to that ideal, but the process of consolidation and monetization has since reshaped it substantially. 

It is important to mention the role of AI here, and the automation of decisions about who interacts with whom and how, which has further increased this polarization and alienation. The virtual Agora that the high-tech companies have proposed to us in the 21st century are the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Messaging apps, Instagram, TikTok etc… 

These are virtual encounter places where different members of society can e-meet. This should replace the physical Agora. There are some advantages to this approach. First, there is delocalization. The user can discuss issues with members at any point on Earth. Second, many things can be shared from the almost infinite supply of data on the internet. However, experience has shown that this experiment of a virtual Agora is not working as advertised. Firstly, there is a resurgence of the tyrant that controls the Agora; in this case the owners and CEOs of the apps which decide on the rules to let users display their ideas in the e-Agora. A good example is the decision by Facebook and Twitter CEOs Zuckerberg and Dorsey to disable ex-president Trump accounts. Among world leaders, it was Angela Merkel who voiced concern about this fact and how, no matter how justified, a single person could decide about the voices in the e-Agora without any judicial intervention. Further, these e-forums seem to foster more polarization than discussion.

Underneath the virtualization of public spaces (the online marketplace, the digital workplace or the cyber-agoras of social media) lies an implicit assumption that this process constitutes a superficial change in the modality of the encounter whose consequences, if any, are to increase the reach and efficiency of the encounters. But what is given up (often silently) is the face-to-face encounter. It is relevant here to invoke the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas for whom the encounter with the face of the Other establishes the basis of ethics:

Firstly there is the straightness of the face, its directness, its defencelessness. The skin of the face is at its most naked and defenceless… The face is exposed, vulnerable, as if inviting an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what prohibits us from killing.

Before being a category: a member of a certain race, religion or political affiliation, the Other whose face we encounter is irreducibly specific, irreducibly individual. Quoting Levina again:

(…) The face is meaning, and a meaning without context. I want to say that the Other, within the rectitude of the face, is not an individual in a context. 

Following Levinas’ thought, the virtual, faceless, encounter constitutes a new kind of experience, a new phenomenology, one where it is not clear what to ground ethics upon. One can see the increased polarization of the political discourse, and the resistance to wearing face masks, especially in the US in this light: As a symptom of social corrosion, lack of concern for the Other.

The enormous advantages of the current developments in technology (the convenience of having fast streaming at home, of shopping remotely and specially, being able to work from home or elsewhere) are not in doubt. We are certainly not ones to advocate for the return to the soul-crushing 9-5 office hours with long commutes in the winter days from New Jersey to Manhattan, something that both of us did for decades. But these changes have enormous consequences, and therefore cannot be driven only from the bottom up, through what is technically feasible, or economically beneficial. Even the exigencies of the pandemic cannot be left to dictate the shape of the future. We keep hearing of the prophecies of the different world that will transpire at the other end of the pandemic. The question is where will we find the Agora in that world? Where will we encounter the face of the Other once it reappears from behind the mask?

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