20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
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2050
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2040
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2020
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7

The Forum we wanted, the forum we got

“Without proper care, public spaces like the Roman Forum — designed first and foremost as a place for commercial and state business — can readily become places of exclusion, rumor, disease, politicking, exploitation and open violence as they steadily approach entropy.”

In 44 B.C., as the Roman Republic was entering its death throes after the murder of Julius Ceaesar, orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero argued for the end of tyranny and the restoration of the old ways through a series of 14 speeches — a speech thread, if you will — meant to rally against Mark Antony. By the end of 43 B.C., Mark Antony had his revenge: He had Cicero murdered, and in a final act of brutality nailed Cicero’s head and hands to the Rostra, the section of the Forum dedicated to public speakers. It was a sign to anyone thinking using their head or hands to speak out.

It’s easy, in the popular imagination, to think of the historic Forum as a place for civil discourse, where new ideas manifest through informed and structured debate. Civil matters were indeed discussed in the Forum, but not always in civil ways. Fights broke out. Heads literally rolled — and were then pinned to the walls. This was generally not a place for women or non-Roman men, excepting the occasional slave or Vestal Virgin. It’s where Augustus and countless emperors innovated with new forms of propaganda, where rumors flew quickly, fights and arguments erupted, and graffiti told the people’s thoughts in their rawest form. And just outside the Forum, bathrooms and sewers would have been major vectors for disease.

Today, journalists face the digital era equivalent of Cicero’s hands and head nailed to the wall. They face tremendous violence online and off, as leaders wield hateful and authoritarian rhetoric, whip up mob frenzies, and employ cyber troops aimed at silencing dissent through waves of harassment, doxing, and memetic intimidation. Some of these attacks jump offline through physical violence, legal actions, reputational attacks, and enforced disappearances.

Just as Augustus used visuals in the form of statues and mass spectacles in order to reinforce his rule and imperial politics, digital states continue to innovate rapidly. As I wrote earlier this year for The Economist, modern-day states utilize the entertainment methods of today to confuse and distract, borrowing approaches that range from reality television techniques, such as using strong language and emotions and selling merch, to viral methodologies that blend art and entertainment with power.

Disease spreads on the internet in unexpected ways, as Meedan’s Digital Health Lab’s Nat Gyenes and Megan Marrelli have found, because we built an internet without public health standards of care of mind. This shouldn’t surprise us: The Romans developed basic sanitation infrastructure but didn’t understand the nitty gritty of how disease spread. Some of their practices — like public restrooms — offered key technological innovations without ultimately understanding the attendant social risks. Outbreaks of malaria, dysentery, and other devastating diseases swept frequently through the city.

Indeed, it was not just engineering but slavery that made Rome tick. While the aqueducts, arches, and roads of Rome inspire awe even today, few remember the many hands that built and maintained these structures. Today, the emerging technologies of our day — next-day shipping, fancy gadgets, content moderation, artificial intelligence — require underpaid, overworked hands and eyes to maintain the appearance of seamlessness, at the cost of tremendous mental and physical health costs for a broad digital underclass.

By the end of the Roman Empire, the Forum was sacked and ransacked by competing factions vying for political influence, and new squares arose throughout the world in an effort to decentralize power. Rising armies physically dismantled the Forum for its parts, and the site was popularly known as the campo vaccino — “cow field” — until the beginning of modern tourism. Here, too, is a lesson, as states begin to establish their own digital public spaces, from China to Iran to Papua New Guinea, through new platforms and infrastructure, as Sean McDonald and I have written for Foreign Policy. We are steadily watching the unified internet as we once thought we knew it being dismantled and shaped by geopolitical and commercial interests, with attention economics, mob rule, and state power determining whose voices are heard most and whose are silenced entirely.

Without proper care, public spaces like the Roman Forum — designed first and foremost as a place for commercial and state business — can readily become places of exclusion, rumor, disease, politicking, exploitation and open violence as they steadily approach entropy. In this regard, it seems all but apropos that the Forum remains one of the guiding metaphors for the internet, because that is what we find ourselves with today.

From the hopeful starts of the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring onward into the techno-pessimism of today, the past decade has shaped and challenged our understanding of what the internet and media can do for society. Moving forward into 2020, it is now time to ask what society — not just technologists, businesses, and governments — can do for the internet and media.

Those of us in the fields of journalism and media have an obligation to adapt our work for the reality we live in, a digital world rapidly becoming as unsafe for anyone questioning the status quo as it was during the turbulent end of the Roman Republic. What’s become increasingly clear is that figuring out how to make the internet safer, more equitable, and protective of basic human rights is the vital work of this new decade.

In 44 B.C., as the Roman Republic was entering its death throes after the murder of Julius Ceaesar, orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero argued for the end of tyranny and the restoration of the old ways through a series of 14 speeches — a speech thread, if you will — meant to rally against Mark Antony. By the end of 43 B.C., Mark Antony had his revenge: He had Cicero murdered, and in a final act of brutality nailed Cicero’s head and hands to the Rostra, the section of the Forum dedicated to public speakers. It was a sign to anyone thinking using their head or hands to speak out.

It’s easy, in the popular imagination, to think of the historic Forum as a place for civil discourse, where new ideas manifest through informed and structured debate. Civil matters were indeed discussed in the Forum, but not always in civil ways. Fights broke out. Heads literally rolled — and were then pinned to the walls. This was generally not a place for women or non-Roman men, excepting the occasional slave or Vestal Virgin. It’s where Augustus and countless emperors innovated with new forms of propaganda, where rumors flew quickly, fights and arguments erupted, and graffiti told the people’s thoughts in their rawest form. And just outside the Forum, bathrooms and sewers would have been major vectors for disease.

Today, journalists face the digital era equivalent of Cicero’s hands and head nailed to the wall. They face tremendous violence online and off, as leaders wield hateful and authoritarian rhetoric, whip up mob frenzies, and employ cyber troops aimed at silencing dissent through waves of harassment, doxing, and memetic intimidation. Some of these attacks jump offline through physical violence, legal actions, reputational attacks, and enforced disappearances.

Just as Augustus used visuals in the form of statues and mass spectacles in order to reinforce his rule and imperial politics, digital states continue to innovate rapidly. As I wrote earlier this year for The Economist, modern-day states utilize the entertainment methods of today to confuse and distract, borrowing approaches that range from reality television techniques, such as using strong language and emotions and selling merch, to viral methodologies that blend art and entertainment with power.

Disease spreads on the internet in unexpected ways, as Meedan’s Digital Health Lab’s Nat Gyenes and Megan Marrelli have found, because we built an internet without public health standards of care of mind. This shouldn’t surprise us: The Romans developed basic sanitation infrastructure but didn’t understand the nitty gritty of how disease spread. Some of their practices — like public restrooms — offered key technological innovations without ultimately understanding the attendant social risks. Outbreaks of malaria, dysentery, and other devastating diseases swept frequently through the city.

Indeed, it was not just engineering but slavery that made Rome tick. While the aqueducts, arches, and roads of Rome inspire awe even today, few remember the many hands that built and maintained these structures. Today, the emerging technologies of our day — next-day shipping, fancy gadgets, content moderation, artificial intelligence — require underpaid, overworked hands and eyes to maintain the appearance of seamlessness, at the cost of tremendous mental and physical health costs for a broad digital underclass.

By the end of the Roman Empire, the Forum was sacked and ransacked by competing factions vying for political influence, and new squares arose throughout the world in an effort to decentralize power. Rising armies physically dismantled the Forum for its parts, and the site was popularly known as the campo vaccino — “cow field” — until the beginning of modern tourism. Here, too, is a lesson, as states begin to establish their own digital public spaces, from China to Iran to Papua New Guinea, through new platforms and infrastructure, as Sean McDonald and I have written for Foreign Policy. We are steadily watching the unified internet as we once thought we knew it being dismantled and shaped by geopolitical and commercial interests, with attention economics, mob rule, and state power determining whose voices are heard most and whose are silenced entirely.

Without proper care, public spaces like the Roman Forum — designed first and foremost as a place for commercial and state business — can readily become places of exclusion, rumor, disease, politicking, exploitation and open violence as they steadily approach entropy. In this regard, it seems all but apropos that the Forum remains one of the guiding metaphors for the internet, because that is what we find ourselves with today.

From the hopeful starts of the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring onward into the techno-pessimism of today, the past decade has shaped and challenged our understanding of what the internet and media can do for society. Moving forward into 2020, it is now time to ask what society — not just technologists, businesses, and governments — can do for the internet and media.

Those of us in the fields of journalism and media have an obligation to adapt our work for the reality we live in, a digital world rapidly becoming as unsafe for anyone questioning the status quo as it was during the turbulent end of the Roman Republic. What’s become increasingly clear is that figuring out how to make the internet safer, more equitable, and protective of basic human rights is the vital work of this new decade.

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