When I’ve been on holiday in a foreign city, I’ve always enjoyed wandering around aimlessly in its public spaces, getting to know them in a wholly unsystematic and haphazard way, and even in Cambridge, where I have lived and worked for almost thirty years now, part of my day, unless the press of work was overwhelming, had always been devoted simply to walking along the river, over the various commons, greens and pieces, and through the town centre. Now suddenly for the past month, as quarantine restrictions have come into effect, my activities in these public spaces have radically changed their character. That my favourite café is no longer a place of possible sociability for me and that I must take care to maintain the proper social distance in the streets and open spaces has caused a disruption in my life which it is impossible not to notice. However, there is another disturbing aspect to the quarantine that is not so immediately visible: all around me private spaces are being transformed into work spaces.
What is public and what is private is a matter of control: who controls what, under what conditions, and in what way? ‘I’ may control who uses a piece of land in what way, or who has access to certain information about me—so that land or information is ‘private’; or nobody does, all comers are welcome, and the place or information in question is ‘in the public domain’.
Obviously the exact nature, modalities and reasons for the ‘control’ in each case will depend on a variety of factors including the nature of the underlying domain in question (land, stock-shares, credit flows, opinions, people’s own visible appearance or their reputation), the means of coercion, restriction and manipulation available, and the interests and purposes of those controlling and those being controlled. So there will be a number of different possible senses of the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’, no one of which has any kind of automatic priority. Second, the distinction is not ‘naturally’ a categorical one but a matter of degree. I can have more or less control over a piece of land or over the cognitive access which others have to my life.
There is strong ideological pressure in the contemporary world to construe the ‘private/public’ distinction as binary and to identify the two contrasting concepts in a particular way: the ‘private’ designates the domain of the individual; the ‘public’ the realm of the state/government, as if there were only two possible answers to the question: who controls this? Actually, however, a better conceptual mirroring of our social reality would countenance at least four different answers, not two:
[a] I control something; for instance, my shoes, my medical records (in principle, at least)
[b] a corporation of some kind controls it; for instance, some private group (like a tennis club), publicly listed international corporation, ‘corporation by Royal Charter’ (like the BBC)
[c] the state controls it: the airspace, ports, motorways
[d] no one controls it: true commons, terra nullius etc. Think of coral atolls in the ocean, over which no one even claims jurisdiction, or the airwaves or the virtual domains of the internet in the very early years before they were appropriated by the giant corporations
A large corporation, however, is not anything like an individual human being and the idea that, for instance, spaces controlled by corporations (which themselves vary enormously in their power, teleology, and internal organisation) must be easily classifiable either as fully private or wholly public is implausible.
For many people the day used to consist of a progression through a series of different spaces with different regimes and configurations of the private and the public. Before I retired (and before the lockdown), I left my house (an archetypical ‘private space’ [a]) and went down public streets [c] to a workplace in one of the university buildings [b], then did the shopping on the market square [c] before returning home [a]. People became used to negotiating a wide variety of different kinds of shared, common, public, private, and semi-private spaces, and also spaces whose status was, in these terms, unclear. The workplace was for many people precisely one of those domains in between fully private and fully public. It was a series of places in which to a varying extent they could see and be seen by others and interact with them in ways that they could not antecedently completely control.
The lockdown has meant a massive privatisation of life. I no longer have random, unexpected, and unpredictable encounters in the market square, and if I were still teaching, instead of a quasi-public space for work in a university building [b], I would have to have a computer at home ([a]), which would mean, on the one hand, that I would need the appropriate space and, depending on my life circumstances, also perhaps the appropriate insulation from recurring, potentially distracting parts of family life. This pressure on space at home, if continued, will most likely lead eventually to higher living costs. Instead of providing me with a quasi-public work-space, my employer would be forcing me to bear the burden of creating and maintaining such a space (‘privately’). At the same time, my access to work would have to be newly mediated through a monopolistically controlled medium, the internet, which is a breeding ground for further rapacious, socially destructive, tax-avoiding monsters. Whatever the early hopes or aspirations of its pioneers may have been, the internet and associated technologies and media have shown themselves to be not so much a new ‘commons’ as remarkably effective instruments of universal surveillance.
Against a pandemic no initiative focusing exclusively on private spaces will work. Combatting it requires collective mobilisation of common resources in the public realm on a massive scale, as we have seen. It would be paradoxical if this kind of inherently public catastrophe actually had the effect of locking us down ever more firmly in increasingly privatised spaces.