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What is the meaning of “public interest”?

Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash

In an engagement with public culture and its related issues the phrase “public interest” often comes up. But what does it mean? Who is the public? And does it have only one interest?

These questions are asked or avoided everytime the word public comes up. Politicians and social workers have a working definition of “public” to justify their actions. For them often the public is a monolithic whole which is not segmented into multiple interest groups.

But the word public is a plural. It is a container for multiple diversities that are collapsed into one collective noun. There are both pros and cons of using this flat holder to refer to ourselves. We can refer to ourselves conveniently but everytime we use the word “public” and opine something, we make it difficult to relise how it is a holder that comprises of many multiplicities within it.

When we try to understand “what the public is interested in?” we come upon an assorted amalgamation of contrariness. Because as the public is comprised of multiple segments, the follow-up question to the above question is necessarily “which public do you mean?” And if an answer to this question is not thought about, to do so has to be the first step.

Defining a specific audience often means using a different mode of distribution to reach it. But what if specific distribution methods to reach this audience don’t exist? What if the methods to reach it have to be developed on one’s own? In India, this is often the scenario facing content creators. Enough segmented databases and media channels don’t exist in the community-space. If they exist, they do in the commercial space and the only way to access it is advertising. Advertising has limited access because it is based on the exchange of money and the knowledge of demographic information. Even if everyone were able to afford advertising, everyone wouldn’t know how to advertise. The perspective of advertising is top-down. People are mere figures and social context is a backdrop. The sole purpose of advertising is to sell. There is no social interest, no human curiosity, no experiential value, no processual knowledge that is sought as a result of participating in an episode of advertising. An advertisement is an announcement of surplus inventory that wants to be placed with customers. In the absence of a context which has material or immaterial products or customers, the advertisement is useless.

If there is no way to reach the targeted public much less dialogue with it, then how will its interests be known? In user experince design we learn that the user of any product or interaction cannot be taken for granted. The user has to be dialogued with and his/her interest has to be sought out. But if access to this user doesn’t exist or exists in a previleged form? Not just for a pre-production prototype study, but also for an ongoing production-distribution-study cycle. If production can be an iterative process instead of being a gamble in terms of capital investment, production volume and design it can be liberating for both makers and consumers. Because publics are not accessible to us we arbitrarily assume how many units to produce, what features to have and at what price to sell.

If access to publics can’t be established, their interests cannot be known. If the interest of a public cannot be known, it cannot be represented in anyway. Any pretense of representing it will only be an act. An empty theatrical practice.

So, “public interest” does not mean anything. Multiple publics have multiple interests. And access to these multiple publics ought to be the first order of priority for us.

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