Friday, October 12, 2012

Technology and Public Places Revisited

A few months, I wrote about urbanism versus technology.  It was a cautious entry into a discussion of great complexity.  But understanding how urbanism and technology interact can have significant implications to urbanism.  Technology can help bring new users to a public place, but can also interfere with the success of the public place.  It can also lead us to product ideas that are almost too weird for words.

There are multiple possible perspectives on the technology/urbanism interaction.  The Aporetic offers the thought that bland and featureless public places are the result of cell phone proliferation.  Prior to cell phones, when we wanted to meet a friend in a public place, we needed clear and distinctive locations.  The Aporetic’s example is the eagle in the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia.

But with cell phones available to help us with last-minute course corrections toward meeting points, he argues that we no longer need distinctive meeting places, which leads to bland, innocuous public places such as Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

Alan Jacobs of Atlantic Cities, among others, poked the obvious hole in The Aporetic’s hypothesis, which is that Dulles existed long before cell phones were common.  The Aporetic tried to cover the logical gap by arguing that recent Dulles remodels have increased the blandness of the place, which illustrates the impact of cell phones.  But the cause and effect of his hypothesis remain dubious.

Having rebutted The Aporetic, Jacobs then took his own wrong turn, arguing that cell phones have proliferated because public places are bland, resulting in a need for cell phones to help us navigate and to meet friends.

That hypothesis seems equally flawed.  I suggest that there is no cause and effect between cell phones and public places.

Instead, cell phones have become omnipresent because they provide a constant connection to interesting stuff happening in the on-line world, which is both exciting and addictive. 

And public places have become bland and uninteresting because we took a flawed turn into modern architecture (per Tom Wolfe and James Howard Kunstler), because we refocused our world around the needs of the automobile (Jane Jacobs and others), or because of both.

We needn’t blame bad public places on cell phones or vice versa.  They both happened for understandable and unrelated reasons.

Besides, the key question isn’t how did we get here, but where do we go from here?  Is it possible to build public places that create interactions between people when many folks have noses buried in cell phones?

To begin to answer that question, it’s important to note that cell phones offer both benefits and detriments in the creation of effective public places.

Cell phones can encourage people to venture outside the front door, which is the first step toward successful urbanism.  Much like a high school party where you only wanted to attend if you were sure that friends would also be there, cell phones can provide a social safety net, giving courage to a phone user to venture into a new or unfamiliar setting.  Even if there is no one to talk with, a cell phone owner can sit on a bench and play with his phone, pretending not to feel awkward.

So the challenge isn’t to bring people into the public realm.  It’s to get them to set the phones aside and to engage in face-to-face communication once they’ve arrived.  Cari Nierenberg, writing in Health Today, presents current research showing that it only takes the presence of a cell phone on a table to reduce the quality of human interaction.  (Admission: I often have my cell phone on the table when dining with my wife, although I often forget that it’s there.  Nonetheless, it seems to be an oops.)

It’s too easy to say that we should educate people to put their cell phones away when they have a chance to interact with real people.  I doubt the ability of education to match the increasing seductiveness of cell phones.

Instead, it is on the urban planners, landscape architects, and the managers of public places to create places and events that triumph over the cell phone at least some of the time.  Not every battle will be won, but victories are possible.

A few weeks ago, I visited a waterfront park that included swings for two with a view over a lovely estuary.  All the swings were occupied and no cell phones were in sight.  Over the summer, I often went to a public market where conversations were going on all around me and there were no cell phones to be seen.  It’s not easy, but the cell phone can be beaten back into its holder.  It’ll be a continuing challenge to find and to build upon those victories.

To end on a note that reads like it’s from The Onion, John Metcalfe of Atlantic Cities reports on a vest being developed by researchers at MIT.  The vest would constantly monitor your Facebook account, inflating to provide a simulated “hug” whenever someone likes something you’ve posted on Facebook.

Recognizing the need for more human interaction, someone thought that a good idea would be to simulate human interaction based on input from the internet.  At least some of us have truly become lost in our electronics and seem to have forgotten what real human interaction should be.

One wonders how these researchers interact at their holiday party.  Perhaps they show Yuletide affection by liking each other from their cell phones.  The cell phones that are on top of the table.

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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