#2: Into the Social Distance
+ What is the "sidewalk ballet?"
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Going the distance
Now that coronavirus has reached the United States, we have been thinking a lot about how people will handle the need for social distancing, a public health term for avoiding close contact with people to prevent the spread of pathogens. The precautions against the virus are already disrupting work, school, events, dating, worship, voting, and political campaigns while we cancel everything.
The photos of empty public spaces around the world and the growing list of canceled events remind us just how much of our lives revolve around coming into contact with other people each day. As the pandemic proceeds, it could also lay bare our societal challenges and highlight our greatest divides, revealing the sociological sense of social distance.
Coined by urban sociologist Robert E. Park, the term describes the distance between groups and measures levels of nearness and intimacy within social networks. Sociologist Emory Bogardus created a seven-point scale measuring this kind of social closeness, ranging from close relatives and neighbors to fellow citizens and foreign visitors.
Introducing the concept in 1924, Park wrote:
It is characteristic of democracy that, relatively speaking and in theory, there are no "social distances." Walt Whitman, who interpreted democracy mystically and poetically, refused to shut out any human creature from the circle of his cordial understanding and sympathy. In his famous lines addressed To a Common Prostitute, he said: "Not until the sun excludes you will I exclude you." And in that inclusive phrase he seemed to include in a wide fraternal embrace everything human and living which the rain wet and the sun warmed.
But this ideal has trouble in practice, as Park wrote, “Democracy abhors social distinctions but it maintains them.” Differences like nationality, race, gender, class, and age have long shaped the spaces we inhabit. The internet may even be contributing to an increase in social distance, as other technologies have arguably done in the past. (Indeed, just consider how the ability to even work from home is a distinguishing mark of privilege, compared to people who cannot do their jobs through remote work.) But what if we could imagine ways that tech could help shrink that distance and the loneliness that follows? As nursing homes go into lockdown to protect vulnerable seniors, video calls and old-fashioned phone calls could go a long way as we restrict visitations.
We have also seen glimmers of hope online this week, demonstrating how we might build digital closeness, something we could use more of even before this trying time. While misinformation has spread during this crisis, many jokes and memes about coronavirus have actually promoted correct information and good behaviors. Star Trek actor and internet superstar George Takei had this suggestion going forward:
My personal favorite meme has to be Wash Your Lyrics. It’s a remix tool for hand washing instructions that pulls lyrics from Genius as an alternative to singing “Happy Birthday” twice to measure your 20 seconds of carpal sudsing. The earworm-inducing generator was created by a 17-year-old developer in the United Kingdom. As scary as the global pandemic can be, at least we can have a good laugh commiserating over blowing through our Zoom conference bandwidth.
Quote of the week
The millennial aesthetic can be enlisted to try to sell anything, as has quickly become apparent. … The legitimating power of clean lines is one thing when applied to meal kits and face wash, another applied to politics and people. “This is a thing keeping me up at night, actually,” says [Jessica] Helfand. “To what degree does design confer false authority on anything it touches?”
—Molly Fischer, “Will the Millennial aesthetic ever end?” - The Cut, emphasis added
Coronavirus will also cause a loneliness epidemic - Vox
They started a karaoke club in their house because the internet wanted it - New York Times
The 2020 election shows the techlash only goes so far - Wired
How the world came together to predict the weather - 99 Percent Invisible
If New York City’s online listings were a mega-apartment - Kottke.org
How to visit the world’s art museums from your couch - Fast Company
The great Tulsa remote work experiment - CityLab
Netflix-and-quarantine life is not that chill - Washington Post
Preparing for coronavirus isn’t about shutting yourself in—it’s about reaching out - Curbed
Dancing in the street
(Keith Haring’s “We The Youth,” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1987 / Photo from Creative Commons)
“The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
In her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the famous urbanist and journalist Jane Jacobs gave rise to the idea of the “intricate sidewalk ballet.” Jacobs describes how the sidewalk demonstrates a “complex order" in a seemingly disordered city, where people moving in different directions create “an orderly whole” that provides “safety and freedom.”
Jacobs describes how “sidewalk and street peace” are kept, not by police or planners, but by an “intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” Criticizing the top-down planning of her era, Jacobs made the case that that contact with strangers is what brings order to a street—by creating trust.
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts,” Jacobs wrote. But these criss-crossing interactions cannot be planned, only encouraged, by design. As we think through how to fix the trashcan fire that is social media, maybe there are ways to think of how encountering strangers online, repeatedly over time, has built trust in ways we haven’t noticed before.
Live long and prosper 🖖
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