Jane Gregory: Subtle signs that divide the public from the private

From a speech at the Royal Society of Arts, in London, by the University College, London lecturer in science and technology
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The Independent Online

To qualify as a public, a group of people needs four characteristics. First, it should be open to all and any: there are no entry qualifications. Secondly, the people must come together freely. But it is not enough to simply hang out - sheep do that. The third characteristic is common action. Sheep sometimes all point in the same direction and eat grass, but they still do not qualify as a public, because they lack the fourth characteristic, which is speech. To qualify as a public, a group must be made up of people who have come together freely, and their common action is determined through speech: that is, through discussion, the group determines a course of action which it then follows. When this happens, it creates a public sphere.

There is no public sphere in a totalitarian regime - for there, there is insufficient freedom of action; and difference is not tolerated. So there are strong links between the idea of a public sphere and democracy.

These transitions between public and private can be traumatic. Visiting a business is like visiting a private club. Each has different rules for the stranger to negotiate, but there are usually guards at the gate, and you are required to declare your identity, and leave your mark: invariably, there is something to sign. Next, you will wait in an antechamber, among leather, marble, and glass: you are seeing resources on display. Then, you will be let in only if you agree to wear a visitor's badge, which is a big label that says "stranger". All this is a reminder that private companies serve the interests of the few.