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Technology, Community, and Common Ground

Columbia University School of Social Work, New York, NY
June 13th, 1998

Good morning. We’ve been asked to look at the world that the profession of social work will face in the future, and I’d like to do this by saying a few words about the relationship of my field – architecture, design and cities – to social change, and I’ll start with a paradox: technology, as all of us know, is bringing us together, faster and faster, closer and closer, all the time. We are all connected, we are all wired, we are all instantly in communication with each other, and distances are as nothing. In a flash you can talk to anyone, in even less time you can receive data, in just a little bit more time you can physically be anywhere at all.

And yet. All of this is happening, and yet at the same time we seem to be more and more distant from each other in certain ways, or at least more and more confirmed in our separate cultures. As we all connect, we seem to splinter, or to break off into separate groups. This may be the age of connection, but it is also the age of factionalization, the age of breaking apart. What connotes common ground today? What is the notion of place, the meaning of community; what value does our society even put in the notion of common ground? There is an interest group for everything, and interest-group politics dominates the public dialogue. There is almost no physical public realm to speak of, certainly not in the cities and settlements we build today; we make no Central Parks, no Boston Commons, those magnificent, shared public places which once symbolized a sense of community, and now would be difficult indeed to replicate. Many of us now live in gated communities, cut off from the world and from our own near-neighbors. We ride in our own enclosed cars and then we retreat into our own private houses, whereupon we sit in front of our own private screens, be they television or computer monitor — and then, once alone, we "connect." What a connection this is. Remember the "isolation booth" of 1950’s quiz shows? That’s what each of us seems to have created, at home, for ourselves. And it goes without saying that the same issues prevail in the workplace, where — for all the talk of the so-called "open office," many people are encouraged by technology to work more and more by themselves, connecting to others only via e-mail and telephone.

For a long time many people in the design world — and I count myself among them — held onto the belief that design could, in and of itself, solve our problems, or at least a lot of them. Once the market figured out that all it needed was to let designers lead them into the promised land, well, then, the good life would be upon us. From the time of the Bauhaus in the 1920’s onward, modern architects and designers believed that design had a kind of holy aura, that everyone truly yearned for the right products and that, once presented with them, they would have the power to change life.

Well, now we know that this is not so — that this is a fallacy that is naive at best, and in its arrogance, can be dangerous at worst. After all, now, at the end of the century, the dream has finally been realized – there is more quality modern design in the mass market, in terms of clothing, cars, electronic equipment, appliances, home and office design than ever before. Has it brought about the good life, the peaceable kingdom? I’m afraid you all know the answer.

The promised land of a global community — the "global village," to use Marshall McLuhan’s famous term — has come to pass in an economic sense, of course. But as we are all one increasingly connected business enterprise around the world, are we truly a global village? Not in the sense that McLuhan envisioned, in which we would be joined into one happy family, no. Far from it. I’m afraid if this global community represents a village, it is more Peyton Place, a real-life village that has cliques, and factions, and politics, and rivalries, and every which kind of intrigue. Maybe that means we truly are a true global village in that we are every bit as messy and jealous and driven by narrow self-interests as any real village anywhere.

How did we get to this place, stuck in this paradox of more connection and more isolation at the same time? And all of it in a world that is so decently designed, which in an odd way only adds to the sense of frustration and disappointment, for it reveals to us that design is in some ways a straw man, weaker than we had imagined it to be, for we now know that design, by itself, cannot do what we had naively expected it to do?

First, technology is fundamentally isolating. "Technology," Max Frisch said, is "the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it." Exactly. Virtual reality has its pleasures, but it is not reality. Long before cyberspace, technology was pushing us away from public places and public experiences. Think back, if you will, to the great ages of urban life — at least we like to think of them as the great ages of urban life — say, Paris in the 19th century, which had as rich an urban civilization as any place has ever had. "Street life" was a sign of the city’s health; the public life was lived in cafes and on the streets, and as you know a sophisticated person-about-town was even called a "boulevardier" — a presence on the boulevards. This term underscored how important the street, the public place, was in the value system of the time — contrast it with our phrase today, "street person" — a euphemism for the homeless, the down-and-out at the bottom of the social ladder.

Great public open space anchored the city in 19th-century Paris; entertainment took place in theaters and concert halls and opera houses and dance halls. It had to be in places like those, since there was no other way to deliver major entertainment. Minor forms of entertainment — street musicians, say — were also in public, on the street. And there was no other way to have a spontaneous live conversation with another person except by meeting him or her on the street or in a cafe. Things happened in public; that was taken for granted. Communication existed mainly by letter, and had a whole other form of existence, more leisurely and thoughtful, in a sense, carefully and deliberately composed pieces of writing, not rapid-fire exchanges. The expectation of instant reply — indeed, the expectation of a speedy resolution of almost any issue, be it a relationship, a business matter, or a simple invitation — was simply not there.

Also, the coming of the automobile meant that the life of the street, the life of the public square, had a different meaning; it began to feel superfluous, unneeded, old-fashioned, and not just in Paris, but even more in every town and city in the United States. We scooped out the insides of our cities and turned them into freeway interchanges, we let malls drain out our street life, and we left town squares to the beggars and the homeless — the "street people," as I said a moment ago, a term that was never intended to have a hint of irony — since the middle class, at least by the 1950’s, was far too busy driving cars and watching television to hang out in a public plaza.

I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here, because I very much believe that technology cannot be stopped or ignored. But it’s important to recognize that the new technological revolution of our time was not always a friend to public life in America, and to the idea of community. As a society, we quickly became accustomed to sitting in our houses, staring at that box, and for most people what public life there was came in the form of the mall, or maybe an occasional visit to a sports stadium. There was no real sense of any physical place that represented common ground — no one went downtown, no one particularly believed in the idea of downtown or in the notion that a city, in and of itself, symbolized commonality and the notion of community.

Urban values, in my view, have always symbolized community — you are in it together, however different you may be, and you have to make it work. Or at least you have to try. It’s never been easy — one of the most wonderful and fascinating items in the 19th-century papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, is his note that "we must recognize that the Irishman’s idea of leisure will be different from the Italian’s," and his determination that the park create an environment in which these different cultures could coexist in harmony, each sharing a sense of ownership of this great public space. This belongs to all of you; you have to share it and make it work. These are urban values: we are together. We cannot pretend otherwise; we cannot hide from reality, even in the magnificent greenery of Central Park.

Suburban values, on the other hand, symbolize the opposite: they represent the elevation of private space over public space, and hence the elevation of the values of separateness over togetherness. Now this is not to deny the strong efforts many suburban communities have made to truly be communities, or to suggest that privacy, separation and selfishness are values held by anyone who lives in the suburbs, while community, generosity and a sense of sharing is felt by every urbanite. I’m not that simpleminded, please. But it is to say that the whole physical layout of most suburban communities, particularly those laid out after 1945 — as well as the layout of most cities that grew large after 1945, like Houston, Los Angeles, and Denver — puts public space several notches below private space, if it gives it any presence at all. So the whole physical form of the place is setting you in one direction, and if you believe in something else, you must swim upstream, against the tide that is set by the physical form you are living in and working with.

So here are two key reasons we have begun to lose our sense of community — technology which encourages us to seek entertainment and communication in private, and suburban or anti-urban physical development, encouraged by the automobile, which removes the public places and the sense of density that made cities or even small towns feel urban, and hence once symbolized a sense of commonality. Another way to put this is to say that our society has elevated the private realm over the public realm — we have devalued the public realm, we have said it does not mean very much. When the private realm takes precedence, then what we are really saying is that everyone’s own interests rank above common interests. And the physical form of the places we build reflects this.

People still want to be in public space of some kind: There is an urban impulse, and even though many people never get to express that impulse anywhere better than a mall, there is still some kind of public experience to that — going to the mall is not shopping on QVC, and this public experience, meager though it is, counts for something. Same with going to the office: however enticing the technological imitations of communal experience can become, people will want real communal experience.

I think that there will always be a place for a true public realm, since if there were not, it would have died long ago — the car, the telephone, the fax, the computer, the television have long made it technologically out of date anyway. We hold onto it because we want it. We benefit from it. It gives us a form of connection that technology, cyberspace, cannot. Cyberspace, in the end, is not a place. We can’t forget that — that cyberspace is a tool, a means of connection; it is not a place. It frees us to do many things, but it is not, despite what Microsoft tells us, the same as going to places.

When you can be anywhere in an instant, you are nowhere; when you can personalize everything, you feel alone, and when you have infinite choice, you have not ultimate freedom but a bizarre form of emptiness. Today’s world promises everything, and delivers it, but at a price: a price of separation, a price of loss of community, a price of loss of a sense of common purpose. If there is anything that distinguishes this country now from where we were 40 or 50 years ago, it is that we no longer have any sense that we are in it together, that our common interests and goals override our differences. Technology isn’t helping us come together, however well it may give us the illusion that it is, for by breaking us into a million sub-communities, by turning our country into the ultimate example of market segmentation, it fine-tunes our commonality out of existence.

We expect everything to happen in an instant, and our impatience, too, contributes to segmentation — everything must happen in an instant, which means it is never fast enough, and so we are perpetually disappointed, which only adds to our frustration. We have broken up time into tiny little pieces, just as we have broken up our communities into warring segments. We need to regain a consciousness of the ebb and flow of time, just as we need to regain a degree of tolerance for difference in every other realm.

Tolerance, maybe, is the thing. In a scientific sense we would say our tolerances are now too fine; we demand that everything be cut too close, whether it is time or money or people or political viewpoints. But in the larger sense, we have too little tolerance. We have not enough tolerance for difference; we have not enough tolerance for nuance of opinion; we have not nearly enough tolerance for the passage of time and for the complexities of culture and place. If there is any challenge for the field of social work in the coming decade, it is this: how to help bring us to a more civilized, and civilizing, environment, and how to use your professional skills to raise the level of tolerance of tolerance, to make us more patient, and to make us feel that we all have some commonality of interest.

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