Reflections on Jane Jacobs, sidewalks, digital media, and our common civic life.
I recently read Eric O. Jacobsen's Three Pieces of Glass, and this overlaps nicely with his thoughts on the role of sidewalks (among other public spaces) in fostering civic relationships that contribute to a greater sense of belonging. Our digital spaces don't (can't?) seem to reproduce the good effects of a little embodied inconvenience.
Just this week, I was sitting on a public terrace by my apartment in Montreal, and a woman seated at the same long table asked me to look up a phone number for her (she had no data plan, I'm guessing). Her not having access to the internet initiated the interaction, and my access meant I could help. But we would've been able to talk about the unseasonably warm and lovely day we were having either way (which we did).
Thank you for this great piece, Michael. A few years back, I was thinking about the concept of "micro-time" or garbage time, the "inefficient" time slots we have (usually in public spaces) during a commute, waiting in queues etc. In my view those seconds and minutes are also opportunities "where we would have had occasion to interact with another person, we now turn to a device." I think we are not only continously replacing/elminating some room for interaction, but the remaining opportunities are many times challenged by the digital realm (other places and other, mostly familiar people), as digital is blurring with interactions in the physical/public world we still have - and it is reflected in our constantly changing norms of how to use smart phone around other people in different public spaces/situations.
Great piece. Thank you for it. So, what can we do? How can we create or adapt places that foster civic friendship in the 21st century, whether online or in meatspace?
Also, I think it's cool to think about the way that big-box stores fit into this. They were enabled by high car ownership, shipping containerization, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the interstate highway system -- all anonymizing technologies in their way -- and absolutely removed regular interaction from daily/weekly shopping. How often do you get the same cashier twice in two days at Safeway?
I think it's probably far worse than you say. If I'm reading you right, you're just looking at the tools themselves, much as Illich did, without asking why they are so consistently pernicious.
Jacobs paints a compelling picture of urban health, or how it should be, but how it is and actually has been is far from her ideal — except when people have been able to self-segregate and regulate who is able to be on their sidewalk.
And all these laments about civic virtues go back a good 500 years or more — it's all the same stuff in late medieval apocalyptic literature. Probably it goes all the way back to ancient times, as long as there have been cities and empires.
The common feature is extraction and "need"/demand on a massive scale that destroys natural ecosystems and their ability to recover — and exploitation of human resources that has the same effect. We should not be surprised to notice we are feeling depleted in a depleted environment in societies where only massive, excessive extraction is rewarded and excessive consumption mandated.