This book has comprehensively identified the ways in which the institutions that have traditionally delivered shared forms of public knowledge have been undermined. It has argued that neoliberal principles, austerity-related economics and heavily segmented online content provision have shrunk and distorted the spaces through which citizens have come to know each other and learn about the world: through spheres of communication and media, education, politics and public affairs. This has led to a situation in which we are less able to exercise oversight over the structures and processes that shape our societies and therefore less likely to be informed by and participate in matters of huge public interest.
Public knowledge is not simply the mirror image of private provision and is not reducible to the production and circulation of a range of commodities that the market may or may not support. Its main goal is not to sell user data to digital intermediaries or audience attention to advertisers. Instead, it refers to a sphere of information and culture that is predicated on the need to serve the public interest, precisely because wholly market-driven transactions are likely to favour the circulation of knowledge that privileges elite networks and private channels. Public knowledge is the property of all citizens whose needs ought to be met, irrespective of their purchasing power, geographical location or social background.
Public knowledge is therefore a classic ‘public good’: a phenomenon that is ‘non-rivalrous’ in the sense that one person’s consumption does not limit anyone else’s enjoyment and in that its social benefit is maximised the more people have access to it. Typical public goods, according to Onora O’Neill (2016, 174), include ‘a sound currency, a non-corrupt judiciary, a medical database, a common language, flood controls systems, lighthouses and street lighting’—to which we might add an impartial news system, public service broadcasting, free and accessible higher education, a well-funded library service and non-proprietary digital networks that are free at the point of use.
We are concerned that public goods are being circumscribed by their for-profit counterparts. We want to help wrest control of knowledge-producing and decision-making back from structures that are not only largely unaccountable to their users but also explicitly intertwined with the powerful interests that need regulating in the first place.
We acknowledge both the scope and limits of participatory and networked forms of resistance that can and have engendered new communicative spaces in which public knowledge goods thrive—but they are constrained by repressive forces of audience segmentation, atomisation and surveillance, as well as enduring divides in media access and literacy. Progressive reforms must be oriented towards publicising these spaces through forms of regulation that promote privacy rights, meaningful diversity of exposure and genuine equality of access.
At the same time, old bottlenecks and traditional forms of gatekeeping power persist. There is still a knowledge agenda—one which transcends fragmented and polarized social groups and one which the prevailing empirical evidence suggests is still dominated by a handful of institutional megaphones. In attempting to address and challenge both new and old forms of concentrated communicative power, we need to ask: Who are the megaphones? How do their voices come to be amplified? What is the extent of their influence over public knowledge and debate?
In order to achieve this, we will need to do three things: First, we will have to demystify prevailing narratives about the knowledge society and associated civic empowerment. The bulk of available empirical evidence suggests that we have not entered, and are not entering, a golden age in which information flows freely and in which citizens are the exclusive determinants of the forms of knowledge, information and culture that achieve salience in the public domain. We have not witnessed the democratisation of gatekeeping power once vested in the owners and managers of news organisations, universities, publishers, film studios, record companies, television networks and other incumbent producers of knowledge and culture.
Second, we need to pay heed to the emergence of new forms of gatekeeping power vested in digital monopolies that control the means by which we encounter and engage with information, public knowledge and culture. However, whilst the prevailing critical narrative of the knowledge society suggests that digital monopolies have supplanted the power of ‘old media’, this notion misses a crucial point: that behind the discursive struggles and legal battles between dominant producers and intermediaries is a reality of growing interconnectedness and mutual dependence. Content is the bread and butter of search and social media industries, whilst the network ‘switch’ that they control—connecting that content with users—has become the lifeline of the content industries.
Finally, we need to reject an overarching instrumentalist logic about the efficiency of markets and crude audits and put in its place a different logic: one that is based on the adoption of progressive principles that are aimed at securing the conditions in which public knowledge can be protected and nurtured. These conditions might include the following:
• Independence: The ability to be meaningfully autonomous of vested interests
• Diversity: The recognition of minority interests and groups and a commitment to articulate differences rather than to impose an artificial consensus
• Universality: The need to cater to all groups irrespective of geography, background and status and to challenge any attempts to exclude users on the basis of their inability to pay
• Plurality: The provision of multiple sources of public knowledge rather than monopolistic or oligopolistic control over knowledge markets
• Redistribution: The commitment to address structural barriers to participate in knowledge sectors and to highlight funding streams that better allocate funds on the basis of need and ability to pay
• Transparency: The requirement for public knowledge producers to declare any interests that may impede their ability to provide independent and trusted services
• Accountability: The ability for publics to scrutinize and influence the services carried out on their behalf
These principles could be realized in the following mechanisms and commitments:
• Ring-fence public funds to support the creation and dissemination of public knowledge and to nurture an education and knowledge infrastructure that can help grow the economy.
• Where production is carried out by private bodies, these organizations should make an explicit commitment to the maximization of human capital and public, rather than shareholder, value.
• Create provisions for broadband infrastructures that are designed and operated as public utilities rather than gated communities.
• Establish strong ‘net neutrality’ rules to ensure that online channels remain non-discriminatory and open to all.
• Protect privacy and the safeguarding of data. Just as there is a requirement in many cities for private developers to provide affordable housing in any new complex, digital intermediaries should be required to provide spaces that are entirely free of cookies and tracking devices that undermine the privacy of users and commodify their data.
• Use taxes and levies on the profits of private information intermediaries to support non-profit knowledge producers—for example, new forms of public interest journalism, public education, specialist legal support and digital content creation.
• Enhance the transparency of meetings and relations between senior media, public affairs and political figures, ensuring that details of interactions are published in a more timely, accessible and comprehensible manner.
A truly progressive reform agenda requires attention to both nurturing new vehicles of public knowledge production and delivery and to reconfiguring old ones in ways that make them more democratic, accountable and sustainable. In regard to the former, there is a particular pressing need to examine the effects on public knowledge caused by intensifying collaboration between dominant players in the supply of news and information. Tech giants have become the means by which some news brands are reaching greater audiences than ever before, but also the cause of enveloping market failure in the business of news. In the shadow of this interplay, particular vehicles for public knowledge goods are facing acute and in some cases existential pressures.
This is especially the case when it comes to developing local and long-form journalism outside of both state and market control. Regenerating these critical spheres of knowledge and cultural production will not provide a panacea to the problems discussed in this volume—but it does offer a starting point, because news is the principal means through which most people in advanced capitalist societies relate to and engage with civic life.
Beyond the news, institutions that have delivered public knowledge such as universities, libraries and public service broadcasting have rightly been criticized for being at times too elitist, too paternalistic, too cautious or too distant. In addition, these institutions have often been forced to compete with commercial providers or to discipline themselves to act more decisively as neoliberal subjects. What should be a wonderful idea—of an emancipatory and non-proprietary form of culture—has therefore been distorted by the pressures under which it is forced to operate. We want to secure opportunities for public knowledge that are truly independent of state and market and that facilitate instead a critical and expansive engagement with the world in which we live.
All of this requires extensive efforts in organization and translation so that the evolving constraints on public knowledge become more visible and ideas for progressive reforms more audible in both policy and public debate. There is a need to draw connections too with wider reform movements in the spheres of economic, environmental and social justice and in the struggle against the iniquities and injustices of global capitalism.
O’Neill, O. 2016. “Public Service Broadcasting, Public Value and Public Goods.” In A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World, 173–174. London: Goldsmiths, University of London. http://www.futureoftv.org.uk/report.