Together in Public: A Reading List

How new technologies are changing how we interact with each other in physical and digital spaces

5 min read

Riders in a subway car glitch in and out of existence, representing how we consciously ignore other people when in public spaces.
Image credit: Darren Garrett
Together in Public logo with the silhouettes of two heads facing away from each other

There’s a book I love, China Miéville’s weird fiction/detective noir novel The City and The City, that uses shared and unshared public space as a narrative device.

A map of the India-Bangaldesh border, showing the excalves and enclaves that the two countries have with each other.
A detail from a map of the border between India (left) and Bangladesh (right), before the 2015 exchange of territory. Image credit: Jeroen // CC BY-SA 3.0

Two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, have been split between neighboring countries going back hundreds of years; but unlike cross-border cities like Detroit-Windsor or Kinshasa-Brazzaville, the two cities are interwoven in the book. Essentially it’s a more outrageous version of real-world examples like the formerly enclave-riddled India-Bangladesh border.

The two countries, and cities, have long been enemies, developing distinct customs and traditions over the centuries. Traveling from one to the other is strictly forbidden, but the border isn’t just a physical line–it’s metaphysical, too. There’s a supernatural division between the two peoples. Physically crossing the border can, in some cases, be as easy as moving from one side of a room to another. There are other ways to cross, though, for instance by failing to ignore things and people you shouldn’t be able to see. In one passage a character from Besźel sits in his kitchen, enjoying the silence after a long day at work; outside of his window, in a completely different reality, a loud, screeching Ul Qoman elevated train rushes past.

In this world, the people who occupy the same physical spaces, breathe the same air, and seek shelter from the same rains are separated by more than just language and culture. Each person moves through the world like a shadow to those next to them, flickering in and out of existence.

If someone chooses to break the wall between the two worlds–to stare at the ghosts that surround them–it’s a source of conflict, a violation of civil norms, and a crime. The book itself is a murder-mystery romp about a suspect who commits murders in both cities with impunity; but it’s also, now, a metaphor for our times.

In our Together in Public section, we explore how people who share physical and digital spaces connect–or don’t connect. This is, after all, how echo chambers or filter bubbles work. But if we concentrate, and look at just the right angle, we can spot those ghosts who exist right next to us, living parallel yet different lives.

In a conversation about public space, it’s always tempting to talk about the physical and digital realms as two different things. But that’s a false binary. Public space, in the traditional, town-square sense, is always under assault from those who wish to control it for themselves–but that applies just as much when those town squares are, say, in a videogame or on social media. And logging off isn’t the same as an undo button; conflicts online are as real as those that happen in person.

How can we make sure that when new groups come together in these spaces the result is cooperation, not conflict? This reading list contains sources we feel are worth reading, watching, and hearing to get a beginner’s grasp of this topic.


“It is wrong to say “‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.”

Nathan Jurgenson


Start here (with our staff recommendations)

  • Ian Steadman: “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life, danah boyd
    “Even though she doesn’t explicitly name it here, this paper is a great introduction to a phrase and concept boyd is an expert on–”‘context collapse.’ Instead of being able to adjust our social behavior to contextual clues, as in real-world interactions, the internet gives us an audience of infinite expectations. This 2007 study of teen behavior on social media (later expanded into a book) feels ever more relevant with each new tweetstorm.”
  • Abigail Ronck: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
    Even more than the MOMA exhibit that has her staring for hours on end into the eyes of strangers, I was struck by this documentary’s retrospective of her work–so much of it is about bodies crashing into each other. It’s interesting to think where that’s gone or whether it ever existed in proper society at all. We crash into each other emotionally every day, but I found myself surprised by the brutal physical manifestation of that.”
  • Duncan Geere: “An Amateur vs. ISIS: A Car Salesman Investigates and Ends Up in Prison, Scott Shane, The New York Times
    “In modern society, the commons has been largely replaced by the comments. This fantastic New York Times story shows what happened when one man delved too deep.”
  • Kristen Taylor: Why We Cooperate, Michael Tomasello
    “Now feels like a good time to think about altruism and motives and how culture shapes our collective behaviors.”
  • Matt Locke: “Did Media Literacy Backfire?, danah boyd
    “A piece I wish we’d commissioned from danah. I worked in media literacy projects at the BBC and Channel 4, and always felt we were using 20th-century tactics to solve a 21st-century problem. danah explains this very well indeed.”

Physical spaces

Again, let’s acknowledge that this binary–between physical and digital space–isn’t necessarily a real one. That said, it makes intuitive sense for people to approach the topic this way and helps to break down this reading list. The following books and articles are either about things we can touch, or about spaces in which we can touch things.


Digital spaces

The other half of the digital-physical binary, where human hands move electrons around, is a place where words are just as real as sticks and stones.


Watch and listen

If the internet’s destroyed your attention span, then this section may help.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Director Werner Herzog’s 2016 feature-length documentary is both a history of “the biggest revolution we as humans are experiencing” and a scattershot investigation into how the physical world is mutating under a digital gaze.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

A classic 1980 film by urbanist William H. Whyte–perhaps the classic film on urbanism–which seeks to answer one question: “What makes good public spaces work and others not?”

Life in a Day

Compiled from footage submitted online by people around the world, Life in a Day is sold as a documentary made up only of video clips recorded on July 24, 2010. It’s effectively a feature-length adaptation of any time you’ve been bored and spent an hour or so clicking around randomly through YouTube. Alternately mundane and compelling, this 2011 film could only exist because of the internet and our devotion to watching “real lives.”

NPR’s Code Switch podcast

A show that includes consistently excellent discussions on race, identity, and culture, and what happens when those things overlap.

BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer podcast

Ryan Broderick and Katie Notopoulos “explore the weirdest corners of the internet so you don’t have to.” A crash course in memes.

Together in Public logo with the silhouettes of two heads facing away from each other

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Together in Public section, on the way new technologies are changing how we interact with each other in physical and digital spaces. Click the logo to read more.