[iDC] Poking holes in the public-private gradient

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Sun Jul 23 23:31:04 EDT 2006

As Frazer Ward suggests, there is no publicity without privacy:

> It seems to me that privacy and publicness may be more tightly  
> wound together than ever, so that while we try to articulate  
> relations between what we might call micro-publics and larger  
> formations, we need not to forget the private realm, or whatever  
> has become of it.

If anything, the problem might be in the tendency to think through  
the relations between public and private in terms of a strict  
dichotomy. Neither exists in a pure state, and more often we  
encounter subtle hybrids of the two in the course of everyday life.  
By recasting the public-private debate in terms of a gradient rather  
than a split, we might better understand the conditions producing  
forms of privacy and publicity in contemporary cities, and how  
certain technologies enable one to poke holes into an otherwise  
smooth continuum.

Tokyo provides a number of examples. Consider the physical fabric of  
the built city. While dense urban centers like Ginza, Marunouchi,  
Shinjuku and Shibuya present conventional (western) public-private  
boundaries established largely by continuous street facades, roaming  
off the major thoroughfares introduces an entirely different set of  
conditions. The scale shifts dramatically, and the broad linear  
street gives way to narrow winding pathways defined by two or three  
story buildings with little concern for declaring clear boundaries  
based on property lines. Rather, a series of transitional spaces  
(stairways, entrance areas, informal gardens of potted plants  
spilling onto the sidewalk, side alleys filled with bicycles, an  
occasional fishtank) mediate between the publicity of the street and  
the privacy of the home. It can be difficult to sense the limits of  
where you can wander. The traditional Japanese house extends this  
transitional zone into the house itself, where the ground plane is  
drawn into the foyer for receiving visitors and where one removes  
one's shoes prior to stepping up into the more private domain of the  
interior (cf. Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story).

At the same time, along these side streets it is common to find  
vending machines (a truly ubiquitous technology in Japan - you'll  
even find them atop Mt. Fuji) embedded into the exterior walls of  
private buildings or situated in the gap between two properties.  
Here, the public is directly embedded within the private,  
transgressing the artifice of the property line.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tokyo's major train stations are  
labyrinthine structures within which the distinction between public  
and private is often ambiguous. In these stations, multiple rail  
systems (Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway, Japan Rail (JR), and the Keio,  
Odakyu, and Tobu lines) overlap, some of which are publicly  
controlled, others private concerns. Connecting these different  
systems is an extensive warren of underground passages, replete with  
restaurants, shops, and a multitude of services for the weary  
commuter. The transition between public corridor and private shopping  
passage is easily missed, sometimes only expressed through minor  
surface variations. Shinjuku station has over 60 exists, some  
spilling into department stores, others onto the street. Taking the  
Ginza line to Shibuya station lands you two floors above the level of  
the street in the bowels of the sprawling Tokyu department store. The  
sectional building diagram indicating where you are when you get off  
the train mysteriously(?) leaves out any reference to the ground  
plane. Finding one's way out to the street can take some time.

Now, one could say there is in fact no such thing as a physical  
Public Sphere in Japan, at least in Habermaas' terms of a space for  
friction, conflict, and confrontation that forms the basis of open,  
democratic public space. "Public space" here appears to be governed  
by a set of protocols aimed at avoiding confrontation at all costs by  
introducing a modicum of politeness in public settings. Nowhere is  
this more evident than in the protocols for mobile phone use. When  
riding the subway, graphic signage instructs you to set your phone to  
"manner mode" - sound off, text messaging only, please. Talking on a  
mobile phone while riding the subway is uniformly frowned upon.  
Within the social condenser of the subway car, private exchanges  
transpire beneath the threshold of public awareness via text  
messaging. Tools for maintaining privacy are also found in the mobile  
phone itself, where "secret mode" enables you to erase any history of  
calls to or from a specific number. Great feature for the  
philandering spouse or amateur spy.

Further, the popularity of mobile audio devices like the iPod points  
toward a desire to personalize the experience of the city with one's  
own private soundtrack. The city becomes a film for which you compose  
the soundtrack. These devices also afford the listener certain  
exceptions to norms of social interaction within the public realm.  
Donning a pair of earbuds grants a certain amount of social license,  
enabling one to move through public space without necessarily getting  
too involved, and absolving one from some responsibility to respond  
to what’s happening around them. Some people use earphones to deflect  
unwanted attention, finding it easier to avoid responding because  
they look already occupied. In effect, the device becomes a tool for  
organizing space, time and the boundaries around the body in public  

So it would appear that on almost every level, the physical  
organization of a city like Tokyo subverts any clear demarcation  
between public and private. Rather, it is in the tactical use of  
technologies such as the mobile phone or the iPod that create mobile  
zones of privacy within highly public situations. This has  
significant implications for architecture, traditionally charged with  
delimiting thresholds between public and private. How might  
architecture respond to the impact of these "personal territory  
machines"? How might the design of the mobile technologies benefit  
from considering issues of privacy and publicity in the (broader)  
terms of architecture and urbanism?

mark shepard

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