How Shall We Understand the Public Interest?

By Aditya Dev Sood

Panchayat meeting on Village Sanitation in Khera village, Budaun District, UP

At the Design Public Conclave, we are concerned to explore how Innovation serves or is related to the Public Interest. In order to address that large question, however, we must first consider what we might mean by this high-minded term. And to do, we first ask, what is the Public?

On account our Socialist past, and our nearly extinct figuration as a ‘developing’ society, one still commonly encounters references to the ‘sectors of society,’ organized as (i) the Government (ii) the Public Sector (iii) the Social Sector and (iv) the Private Sector. Whereas, prior to liberalization (i) and (ii) were seen to operate more or less indistinguishably from one another, their roles now appear to be diverging, with the role of Government having to do more and more with the creation and regulation of markets, while the Public Sector is either privatized or else outsources all its core functions and operations to the Private Sector.

While representatives of each of these sectors may operate in ways which it claims are in the Public Interest, the ways in which they make these claims are varied. Moreover, in each case, it is difficult for anyone to articulate how the interests of the particular bureaucracy or organizational or financial-communications network is actually aligned with the putative Public Good. The collective interests of society, when described as the vector sum of all the diversely oriented forces operating upon and within it appears as a static quantity, which can easily be reduced — through corruption, inefficiency, venality, cupidity, and the concomitant destruction of value — but which cannot easily be increased except in so far as a functioning service-providing entity continues to operate with its own enlightened self-interest in mind. Thus do we once again derive, through a metaphor of vector integration, Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand, whereby private ambitions are channeled towards the larger aims of society.

Another approach to the Public Interest is as that object which Journalism serves. More generally, the Press, Journalists and the Media widely-considered are defined as such in virtue of their ability to conceptualize and then serve something we posit as being interesting to the Public. In order to consider this proposition further, we might need to consider how the Media relates to the rest of society.

The classic, European, means of defining the Press is in terms of the Estates of Society, of which is the Fourth, following the Clergy, the Nobility and the House of Commons. It is not entirely clear, of course, that the first three Estates are properly represented in India as a tight and triangular triumvirate. For one thing, unlike the Roman Catholic Pope or the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, we have no single religious leader recognized as representing the faith of the land. So while this Estate looms large in the Public Life of the nation, it is not unified nor represented univocally. Also, happily, we have no king, only a figurehead President, who is effectively allied with the government in power, which in turn is formed out of the legislature. So those two Estates ultimately become mutually identical and merge. So while the First Estate is diffused and Second and Third Fused, here in India, we have a particularly active and vocal Fifth Estate, namely Civil Society, the power of which we recently clearly witnessed, when Anna Hazare and his supporters took over Ram Lila Grounds in New Delhi.

Each of these Estates would appear to have a kind of claim on representing the Public, and each may attempt to do so from time to time, in coalition or contest with other Estates. The interactions between these diverse Estates of Society may, in fact be getting more and more agonistic and mutually antagonistic, and one may even propose that the Public Interest can only briefly be glimpsed whenever these contests come into play.

The clash or collisions between different sections of society give rise to temporary disruptions or irruptions which can bring about change. We may recall that innovation is also a vector of change, specifically socio-technical change. There would seem, therefore, to be a possible alignment between the possibility of the Public Interest and the processes of Innovation. More work will remain to be done, however, by the participants of the Design Public Conclave, to explore and explain where precisely those alignments lay, and how the creative-destructive force that is Innovation can be made to align with the Public Interest.

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1 Response to How Shall We Understand the Public Interest?

  1. Pingback: Design!publiC 2 at NGMA, Bangalore on October 14! |

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