The Automation and Privatization of Community Knowledge

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about community, who we are as a community, what keeps us connected and together, and how community knowledge is stored and distributed. As an anthropologist, my research focuses in part on automation and algorithmic impact on society, in particular, on our relationships and how we maintain them towards common cooperative goals. As such, when technology begins to change our relationship to our local locale (as it has been doing increasingly over time with each new capability), I pay attention to how this changes our physical and social structures, and our relationships to them and to each other.

Recently, Apple Computer, Inc. has branded the privatization of the idea of the commons, by renaming the retail Apple stores as “Town Squares“[1]. In Apple’s definition, these “Town Squares” are where people will gather, talk, share ideas, and watch movies, all within Apple’s carefully curated, minimalist designed, chrome and glass boxes. In this scenario, Apple’s “Town Square” is tidy, spartan, and most critically, privatized. This isn’t new behavior, however, what is new is the context within which Apple is able to do this, from both inside of shopping malls, and from retail locations on Main Streets. Applin (2016) observed that private companies are collecting and replicating community through their networks and communications records [2]. Madrigal (2017) observes that  “the company has made the perfect physical metaphor for the problem the internet poses to democracy” [3]. This article provides a discussion of what happens and what we forfeit in these hybrid gathering places between Internet usage and privately owned spaces; and how these hybrid spaces have become enabled in the first place.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the American public witnessed and participated in the privatization of public space through the shopping mall, a privately owned conglomerate of retail stores located in a single place, usually away from the “Main Street” in a downtown area. Shopping malls were located in places where space was available, land was less expensive, and people were further away from a downtown. As shopping malls became centralized shopping spaces, downtown “Main Street” stores lost revenue and many shopkeepers could not compete with the prices offered at shopping malls, or the proximity to so many other businesses. An outcome of the popularity and usage of shopping malls by the public, was that they were public spaces within private spaces and as such, people’s rights were limited depending upon the policies of the shopping mall. This was a quiet, barely noticed outcome of where we shifted our attention and participation, and as surveillance equipment became more available and cameras became installed in malls, we often unknowingly participated in new ways for malls to record our behavior and habits, and to monitor us. As we began to use mobile devices enabled with cameras, we started to participate in monitoring malls and the people within them, as we photographed and cataloged our lived experiences. We also began to move more, and as technologies became more enabling, to shop online.

For those and other reasons, the shopping mall hasn’t sustained continued growth. Many malls have closed or gone into disrepair, and others have seen a downturn in businesses wanting to support them. It’s a complex web of retail vs online shopping, combined with how fuel and driving patterns have been changing. As a result of these new factors, walkable cities and their associated downtown real estate has become once again in vogue, but with caveats. In particular, the mall stores have now been renting spaces on Main Streets, with their economic leverage to price out local business, and this creates fusions of public space and the “mall sensibility” (e.g. a conglomerate business model, often based on extremely advanced supply-chain automation and customer profiling data capabilities and soon to be driven by Artificial Intelligence capabilities).

With shopping malls, the privatization of public space happened in the physical space of the mall, but the outcome of how our behavior has changed is now within the public spaces of our communities, as we rely more and more upon communications technologies to maintain our social networks. As we automate, we are shifting our conversations, relationships, messages, and preferences to the private control of companies whose interest is not in maintaining our community or its health and well-being, but rather to increase their knowledge of us, so that they may provide more targeted advertising, better “services” that we will pay for, and to enable control over our communications in new ways.

What this means for communities is that community knowledge of the local locale, which is built over time in a community via social relationships, cooperative efforts, and group awareness is becoming individualized and commoditized. This is happening simultaneously as Main Streets are becoming “automated” through participation in the reconstruction of the shopping mall’s corporate influence into community.

When Apple rebrands (privatizes) the “Town Square,” their corporate desires and objectives take precedence over people within that space. The ethics questions and concerns of how Apple will use unproven, experimental, biometric technology such as facial-recognition [4], can be overlooked with the framework of a private “Town Square” where public experience is curated.

In the Apple “Town Square,” all is known and controlled by Apple and any technology that could benefit from ethics oversight (or at least some governance review) could be perceived to be bounded within Apple’s domain, which includes servers located out of town or perhaps out of country, and within a store that is at base, a private corporate space accountable to itself and its shareholders.

In the Apple 1984 Super Bowl advertisement [5], men and women with shaved heads wearing grey uniforms are marching through space age chrome and glass minimal tunnels while a “Big Brother” type of authoritarian figure talks to them across a screen. What he says from various monitors, as the people assemble in a similarly outfitted auditorium is:

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause[6].

With the rebranding of “Town Squares” into privatized Apple stores, it becomes apparent that Apple is transforming its retail spaces into “a pure garden of ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths.”

Apple isn’t the only one. Amazon pushed community bookstores out of business with competitive pricing online and are now opening physical bookstores in communities [7]. In these spaces Amazon sells books, but they also do so utilizing vast data networks, which include many human reading preferences and order histories.

In Amazon Go and the Erosion of Supermarket Sociability [8] and in Deliveries by Drone: Obstacles and Sociability [2], I examined how automation is replacing human contact and interchange and within those frameworks, I question whether or not community knowledge is passed along, or becomes owned by the various private enterprises, who are controlling the communication around and about transactions. Gas stations are privately owned hubs of community knowledge. Where I live in Silicon Valley, gas stations are beginning to be replaced by office buildings, and developers who desire corner lot real estate in a land strapped area, are willing to invest in changing the urban landscape. In my neighborhood alone, three gas stations have been closed and developed into office properties. It is not necessarily a bad outcome to develop gas stations, for it is an indicator that better energy sources are being adopted. However, it does mean that the small corner gathering and community knowledge outposts in some areas (even if privately owned) are being developed in new ways that remove their function and replace it with more refined and harder to access gathering points.

When we stop talking to each other in a community and default to automation or removed accessibility, we are forfeiting part or all of our community knowledge, homogenizing it, and offering it to private control. Data mining and machine learning will begin to track more and more of our community spaces, and our public rights in digital space combined with what we have in physical spaces will change our relationships and the way we choose to express our opinions and beliefs.


[1]Apple Computer, Inc. 2017. Town Square.

[2] Applin, S. 2016. Deliveries by Drone: Obstacles and Sociability. In The Future of Drone Use (Custers, B. editor). Springer. T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague. Oct. 16, 2016.

[3] Madrigal, A. 2017. The Great Thing about Apple Christening Their Stores, “Town Squares.” The Atlantic. Sept. 13, 2017.

[4] Applin, S. 2017. Paying with our Faces: Apple’s FaceID. Savage Minds. Sept. 23, 2017.

[5] Apple Computer, Inc. 1984. Apple 1984 Super Bowl Commercial Introducing Macintosh Computer (HD) via Robert Cole. June 25, 2010.

[6] Wikipedia. 2017. 1984 (Advertisement).

[7] Blumenthal, E.2017. While Barnes & Nobles close, Amazon is opening real live bookstores. USA Today. May 24, 2017.

[8] Applin, S. 2016. Amazon Go and the Erosion of Supermarket Sociability. Savage Minds.


One thought on “The Automation and Privatization of Community Knowledge

  1. Hi Sally, I enjoyed your article and curious if I might discuss with you the idea of the Grocery store or the Gas station as a true community? In such a scenario, do we know the players and greet them by name (perhaps this is true in some small towns the world over, though less so in cities) or do you mean more that these opportunities to simply have human interaction albeit it with strangers or familiar people (whose face we recognise, but whose names we might not know) are being eroded by the automation of such places, or as you say being surrendered to big data and private organisations.

    These kinds of debates and conversations are going on all around me and is a central theme in my own house where my wife resents the invasion of cookies, or a ‘listening’ microphone on an iPhone. I am less bothered by such artificial monitoring though neither will I argue for it or try to convince my wife or anyone else for that matter that such practices are OK.

    Finally I should mention I am conducting an MBA thesis on the general topic of Digital Anthropology and at the very early stages though part of my exploration in fine-tuning my topic and general understanding is by way of participatory research into various online forums, blogs, comments as I am doing here.

    Appreciate any feedback you may and happy to debate,discuss etc.

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