Friday, July 20, 2012

Urbanism and Technology

A frequent punchline to stories about romantic relationships is “It’s complicated.”  In the past few weeks, a friend used exactly that line in describing a relationship of hers.

And yet, “It’s complicated” applies even better to the relationship between urbanism and technology.   Technology helps us overcome the separation caused by drivable suburbia.  Then it leaves us sitting in a public plaza, engrossed in our own smartphone or earbud worlds.

Technology Review tries to make the case that technology is counteracting the influences of automobiles and suburbia.  But the writer’s arguments add up to an argument that technology is less bad than suburbia.  It’s better than nothing, but not good enough.

Derek Thompson of Atlantic offers a quick history of headphones along with a review of the average teenager’s contention that studying is more productive with headphones.  (It’s not as untrue as most parents believe, but ultimately studying is probably better without headphones.  Headphones may provide a calming, distraction-free environment, but they also interfere with bursts of creativity.)

Thompson then looks at the social aspects of headphones, noting that headphones did for music what writing and literacy did for language. They took what had been a public experience and made it private.  Thompson goes on to speculate that headphones fit well with American tradition of independence, allowing people to maintain solitude even when surrounded by others. 

Thompson quotes Dr. Michael Bull of the University of Sussex, "With the urban space, the more it's inhabited, the safer you feel.  You feel safe if you can feel people there, but you don't want to interact with them.”

As Thompson phrases it, headphones allow us to say “I am here, but I am separate.”

Thompson’s article was a coda to the cover article in Atlantic magazine the previous month titled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  Writer Stephen Marche found the perfect image for his story, an aging movie star whose only remaining connection to life was with fans who found her online.  When she collapsed and died in front of her computer, no one knew to look for her.  Her mummified remains weren’t found for a year, but the computer screen was still casting a blue glow over her body.

When the story of her death went viral, it completed a bizarre and disturbing circle.

As Marche describes it, “Facebook doesn’t destroy friendships—but it doesn’t create them, either.”  As he continues, “Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy.”

Plus many of us are constantly aware of the image we’re portraying on Facebook.  “Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation.”

And the internet also affects the type of friends we have.  The Wall Street Journal reports on studies showing increased internet use leads people to have more homogeneous groups of friends.  We prefer to associate with people who think as we do, so the broader pool of people available on the internet allows us to find more people with whom we agree.

Unfortunately, the time we spend online with those people, who may live in North Dakota, is time we’re not spending talking to our neighbors with whom we should be building a community.

I don’t see an easy solution to the conundrum of urbanism and technology.  Technology seems to offer interesting opportunities for improved urbanism experiences, but capitalizing on those opportunities is a challenge.  And asking people to leave their headphones at home would be a fool’s errand.

Perhaps the best hope is that someone will have a brilliant idea for the Internet 2.0 by which technology can encourage us to leave our computer screens behind to engage in public conversation.  Although the days of flash mobs are fading, perhaps the impromptu congregation idea can be reborn as a path to meaningful urbanist experiences.

Or maybe the best we can do is to blog about urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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