When the Timeline Becomes Our Sidewalk
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Jane Jacobs opened her mid-twentieth century classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with a discussion of the peculiar nature of cities. In the course of this discussion, she devoted all of three chapters to a single aspect of city life: the uses of sidewalks. I’ve always found the second of these three chapters especially interesting. In it, Jacobs examines the myriad incidental contacts generated among people who daily make use of a shared sidewalk—the nods, the smiles, the brief conversations, etc.
Let’s think for a bit about Jacobs’s analysis and take the sidewalk as an example of what I recently called the material infrastructure of social life, and, more specifically, as a space of public rather than private consequence. As Jacobs observes, the point of “the social life of city sidewalks” is precisely that it is public*, bringing together, as she puts it, “people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion.”
In other words, Jacobs is describing the multiple, usually brief and inconsequential, contacts people who live on the same city street will have with one another over an extended period of time. These contacts are mostly with people who are not necessarily part of our circle of friends, but who, because of these contacts, become something more than mere strangers. And that seems like a crucial, often ignored category because it informs, as Jacobs recognizes, whatever vague understanding we have of the public writ large.
Jacobs acknowledges, of course, that, taken separately, these contacts amount to nothing, but the sum of such contacts, or their absence, becomes absolutely consequential. At stake, in her view, is nothing less than the trust that is essential to any functioning civic body.
“The trust of a city street,” she writes, “is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop ….”
Again, as Jacobs explains, most of these contacts are “utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands […]—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”
“The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street,” she insists. And, what’s more, “Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized.” (I’ll trust you to fill in the Illichian digression on that last observation!)
In the course of her analysis of the little publics sustained by the city sidewalks, she also offers an astute observation about the nature of suburban social life. As a built environment, the suburbs make it very difficult to cultivate the casual acquaintanceship generated by the countless contacts that inevitably arise from the shared city sidewalk. In a suburban setting, you either invite people into your home or, with vanishingly few exceptions, they remain strangers altogether, and Jacobs is realistic about how few people we are likely to invite into our homes. The materially induced tendency, then, is to know relatively well those who are most like us and, those who are not, hardly at all. What is lost, we might say, is the category of what Aristotle called civic friendship.
All of which raises the question: From where exactly will “a feeling for the public identity of people” arise? How might “a web of public respect and trust” be fostered? We’ll come back to that in a bit, but first let’s consider how these dynamics have been impacted by our contemporary technological milieu.
On this score, I’m particularly struck by the degree to which we are encouraged to displace or outsource the sort of micro-interactions, which generate the human contacts Jacobs finds so valuable. Sometimes this is a matter of unintended consequences; sometimes it is a matter of intentional design and expressed preferences.
As an example of the former, consider one unintended consequence of GPS. We tend to think of GPS displacing the paper map, which is true enough but not quite the whole story. The paper map was not the only method we used to find our way when we were in need of directions. We were just as likely to ask someone for directions to where we wanted to get. And, if it happened that I lost my way or that my directions proved inadequate, I’d likely pull over or stop someone to ask directions. In other words, in circumstances where we would have had occasion to interact with another person, we now turn to a device.
As an example of the latter, consider the move toward automated tellers, online banking, or self-checkouts in retail spaces. In these cases, a fairly common opportunity for a brief human interaction has been lost. The proliferation of home delivery services and online retail also promise to relieve us of the need to venture out into the spaces that previously presented us with opportunities for casual human contacts. We’ve tended to frame these developments with questions about employment and labor, which are perfectly legitimate frames of analysis, but Jacobs encourages us to imagine a different kind of cost, which is also much harder, if not impossible to quantify.
Consider as well how digital devices confront us with the subtle temptations of telepresence. We have the capacity and perhaps the proclivity to take partial leave of our immediate surroundings, including a tacit permission to forego the sorts of contacts Jacobs discussed by presenting as one who is presently conducting business elsewhere or otherwise preoccupied.
In fact, the trajectory toward a situation where we find ourselves ensconced within relatively comfortable zones of affinity, familiar at first hand chiefly with those who are mostly like us, is longstanding. One might see it, as Richard Thomas did in a manner not altogether dissimilar from Jacobs’s analysis of the sidewalk, in the architectural shift from front porches to back patios, and all that such a shift entails and implies about our social lives.
As Thomas observed, “Nineteenth century families were expected to be public and fought to achieve their privacy. Part of the sense of community that often characterized the nineteenth-century village resulted from the forms of social interaction that the porch facilitated. Twentieth-century man has achieved the sense of privacy in his patio, but in doing so he has lost part of his public nature which is essential to strong attachments and a deep sense of belonging or feelings of community.” The chef’s kiss comes with the advent of the doorbell camera, which casts our gaze into the public as a mode of surveillance rather than civic interest.
It’s not that any one instance of these cases is significant or necessarily “wrong.” Rather, as Jacobs suggested, it is the case that they become consequential in the aggregate. In other words, we should be attentive to the sort of people we become as a result of the mundane social liturgies, engendered by our material environment, which we daily enact with little or no reflection.
I should grant that Jacobs had in view not merely chance interactions, but recurring encounters with people who shared a city block over time and thus would gradually become familiar to one another. For those who have not lived on a city block in this manner, of course, these recently outsourced human interactions are simply a further attenuation of our public lives, that is to say of our lives insofar as they intersect with those who are not a part of our private circles.
But let’s return to the question of how we imagine the public when we have so severely constricted the contacts we might have had with those who are not part of these circles. What most interested me in Jacobs’s discussion was her insistence that these casual sidewalk contacts were mostly with people with whom we do not ordinarily desire any deeper relationship. Given the material structure of suburban life, people tend to operate with two categories of relationships: those they know relatively well and those who remain strangers altogether. There is little or no space in between. And, naturally, those in the class of people we know relatively well would tend to be more like us than not. All of which is to say that some of our most pronounced “filter bubbles” emerged long before the advent of social media.
What matters here is that we will still operate with some mental model of the other. We will still conjure up some generalizations about the people who are not like us. When we enjoy a high frequency of contacts with the public such that some of them become more than mere strangers although less than friends, then our conception of the public is anchored in particular flesh and blood human beings, thus, in theory, tethering our imaginings more closely to some approximation of reality.
However, when we lack such contacts, when our experience of others too readily divides into friends and strangers, then our image of the public tends toward abstraction, a blank screen onto which it may be tempting to project our fears, suspicions, and prejudices or, perhaps more benignly and naively, our own values and assumptions.
But the situation seems to be a bit worse than that. It’s not just that we lack the sidewalk as Jacobs experienced it, or some similar public space, and are thus left with a wholly inchoate image of the public beyond our affinity groups. It is, rather, that our digital media feeds and timelines have become our sidewalk, our trivial and incidental contacts, very different indeed from those Jacobs observed, transpire on digital platforms. This has turned out to be, how shall we say, a suboptimal state of affairs.
The problems are manifold. We are tempted to mistake our experience of a digital media platform for the full breadth of reality. While in-person contacts tend to be governed by operative social norms, digital platforms foster a comparatively high degree of irresponsible and anti-social behavior. Untethered by civic friendships, our image of the public may be filled in for us by those who have an expressed interest in sowing division and fear. Relatedly, and perhaps most significantly, social trust craters on digital media. It would be hard to overstate the damage done by the weaponization of bad faith at the scale made possible by digital media. It's far worse than the mere proliferation of lies. It undermines the very plausibility of a politics sustained by speech. And it is utterly untouched by our precious fact-checking.
In short, our most public digital sidewalks tend toward open hostility, rancor, and strife. Little wonder then that so many are fleeing to what what might think of as the digital suburbs, relatively closed, private, and sometimes paywalled spaces we share with our friends and the generally like-minded. But I suspect this will do little for the public sphere that we will still share with those who remain outside of our circles, be they digital or analog, and who do not share our values and assumptions.
Civic virtues, as it turns out, do not spring up out of nowhere. All virtues and vices arise from habits engendered by practices, which, in turn, reflect the material infrastructure of our social lives. Right now it seems as if that infrastructure is increasingly calibrated to undermine the possibility of civic friendship. Which brings us back, once again, to Ivan Illich staking his hope on the practice of hospitality: “A practice of hospitality recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand. On the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.”
* It’s worth noting Sara Hendren’s comment in What Can A Body Do? on Jacobs’s discussion of the sidewalk and the unstated assumptions about accessibility: “But you can only see and be seen, only get into and out of the shared public of life of the world, if you can get down the sidewalk in the first place.”