The Centre of the Public Square

December 12, 2023


The Centre of the Public Square has a simple focus: to build better models of citizen collaboration and strengthen civil society by imagining new methodologies and alternate technologies to anchor this public space.

Around the world we can see the challenges to democracy from the business models that propel the current platforms: whether it’s Musk’s bin-fire of X, Zuckerberg’s failing Meta empire or the Chinese state-entwined TikTok.

All of them prioritise holding our attention in order to maximise the amount of behavioural data they can collect on us to repurpose and resell to the highest bidder. The proven way of doing this is to excite us, anger us and reinforce our existing world views and prejudices.

The Yes 23 Referendum vote this year highlighted the corrosive power of this operating model, a community consensus was rendered impotent by the power of the algorithms that privileged division, disinformation and anger over empathy and sober reflection.

The maintenance of Australian liberal democracy is no longer inevitable, like many other comparable nations social progress has stalled just at the very moment the world faces existential crises from climate, inequality and technology.

But how can we properly navigate these challenges when we don’t have the public space to think them through?

The focus of the Centre of the Public Square will be to design, pilot and scale better models of community engagement that focus on establishing points of connection, rather than friction, and building power from the ground up.

The Centre will have three core focal points:

  • We will propose policy and advocate for measures that put communities at the centre of technological change, from control of our data to the right to be forgotten to ensuring that technology doesn’t trample over our existing rights as workers, consumers and citizens.
  • We will develop and run pilot projects that test our hypothesis that there are better ways of engaging as citizens. We want to design a model that makes civic engagement not just meaningful but fun, where participants get to learn from each other, ask questions, have real input and be given the chance to lead in their own communities.
  • And every project will build into our longer-term vision to create a self-sustaining community of citizens who are connected through a platform designed to build the  countervailing power that liberal democracy needs in order to thrive.

Our first project, in partnership with the Australian Disability Dialogue brings together NDIS participants, their families and academics into a safe, shared collaborative space.

We are also looking forward to working with our friends at UTS’s Human Technology Institute, as we think through the impact of AI across different industries in 2024.

And we are hungry for opportunities for other organisations or networks of good who look at the way they are prosecuting their agenda and may be thinking to themselves ‘surely we can do better than sharing angry memes and boosting videos’.

The tech book of the year (by some distance) was ‘Power and Progress’ by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, who argue the historical importance of the citizen voice in the productive benefits of technology over the millennia.

As the Big Tech platforms attempt to head off their escalating enshittification by investing big into machine learning and generative AI, we face the prospect of another wave of technology focussed on surveillance and automation.

Only with the intervention of those who will use the technology, expressed through their collective voice will we develop Machine Usefulness, and give us the tools, knowledge, connections and markets to make our work more productive.

Acemoglu and Johnson’s call to action reads like a local job description for the work of the Centre:

  • To alter the narrative and change the norms about what good civic engagement looks like.
  • Second, to organise people into broader movements that can push for reform.
  • And finally to develop policy responses from the ground up, informed by lived experience rather than some self-serving techno-utopian vision of the future.

If you sign up to the Centre we will keep you informed through a regular newsletter – which we are going to call ‘The Town Crier’ – and with our fortnightly Virtual Town Hall as our Burning Platforms podcast returns to its live roots.

You will also be invited to citizen-facing consultations, discussions and happenings in which you can begin to exercise your citizen muscles in.

Finally, a special thank you to Emma Dawson and the Per Capita team for offering us a home – and special thanks to the Australia Institute for their support of our work with the Centre for Responsible Technology over the past few years.

Peter Lewis, Convenor

Jordan Guiao, Responsible Technology Director


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