#8: Rebooting the Dream
+ Finding ways to space out online
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Finding life in the netscape
Over the weekend, venture capitalist Marc Andreesen lit a fire among the tech and startup community with a bare declaration: It’s Time to Build. Andreesen, the co-founder of Netscape and co-author of Mosaic, ties how unprepared the United States was for the coronavirus crisis to an “unwillingness to build” and says that status quo left the country facing sluggish progress in health care, education, manufacturing, transportation, and housing. Andreesen argues, “Building is how we reboot the American dream.”
The irony of that thought coming from a VC whose slogan is literally “software eats the world” wasn’t lost on the online audience. While Andreesen did not directly address the internet’s connection to these daunting challenges, he did mention cities. Andreesen writes:
When the producers of HBO’s “Westworld” wanted to portray the American city of the future, they didn’t film in Seattle or Los Angeles or Austin — they went to Singapore. We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities at levels way beyond what we have now; where are they?
But the online world’s problem is not so much infrastructure left unbuilt — there are platforms for almost any imaginable content and products — it’s that people are losing a sense of belonging in digital spaces. That’s something cities have grappled with through the ages.
In Life Between Buildings (1971; translated, 1987), Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl describes how cities should allow life to develop on a gradual, human scale. He describes two radical changes in city planning: the Renaissance emphasized aesthetics, where the city became “a work of art, conceived, perceived, and executed as a whole,” and the 1930s emphasized functionalism, where cities and buildings were designed with the need for healthy architecture, with light, air, sun, ventilation and open spaces.
The pedestrianization of Nyhavn, the waterfront district in Copenhagen, Denmark, demonstrates how finding new public space doesn’t have to mean a big building project, even in a compact city. (Michael Apel/Wikimedia Commons)
“The consequences for the social environment were not discussed,” Gehl wrote. While city planning had allocated green space, the profession had not yet evaluated the influence that buildings had on outdoor and social activities until in the 1960s and 1970s. Modern technologies spoke to something that had been lost in the “neglected public spaces,” as Gehl wrote:
The telephone, television, video, home computers, and so forth have introduced new ways of interacting. Direct meetings in public spaces can now be replaced by indirect electronic communication. Active presence, participation, and experience can now be substituted with passive picture watching, seeing what others have experienced elsewhere.
Gehl argues for city planning not simply based on building, but allowing for “city life” to flourish in communal spaces and design needs to encourage interaction. In Gehl’s theory, public spaces shouldn’t have specific uses, and instead should include a mix of “necessary,” “optional,” and “social” activities. While building visually and functionally satisfying cities is important to planning, Gehl’s work shows how social structure determines how people feel in public and private spaces. It’s not enough just to build something if people don’t sense that they belong there.
Is it time to redesign Earth Day? - Metropolis
This maze-like urban park is designed to keep everyone six feet apart - Fast Company
Why Instagram’s co-founders made a site to track coronavirus - Vox
Maps of life under lockdown - CityLab
The 18 lessons of quarantine urbanism - Strelka Mag
We’re all early adopters now - OneZero
This website deletes itself if people stop posting - The Verge
The race to save the first draft of coronavirus history from internet oblivion - MIT Technology Review
In quarantine, social media has become a battleground between the wealthy and everyone else - Vox
How an “old hippie” got accused of astroturfing the right-wing campaign to reopen the economy - Mother Jones
Unlike the inner isolation fostered by consumerism, the isolation of quarantine is a physical — and highly visible — reality: We can see ourselves, each a private “last person on earth,” confronting deeply fragmented, surrealistic others. Without our “public” spaces (“public” meaning, in that American way, private places where you can be among others as long as you spend money), it’s easier than ever to see our conceptual, spiritual isolation. Confronting the spectacle of others with little to no contact or shared transactional space bursts the last illusory bubble that consuming others as images was ever “social” at all.
-Patrick Nathan, “Empty Frames,” Real Life
Digital closeness: Riding the rails
Reader, if the world was going the way I thought it would a few months ago, I’d be writing this newsletter from my first visit to Chicago. Instead, I took a joyous adventure over the weekend on the L from the quarantined comforts of our apartment in the District of Columbia. This CTA Ride the Rails YouTube video that lets you ride real-time ride along from the rail operator’s vantage point. It even includes transfer points to other lines with videos.
With my girlfriend as a guide, we toured her old stomping grounds from the elevated train. But if you don’t have a local Chicagoan to guide you, someone on Twitter suggested this PBS tour from Geoffrey Baer. Or there’s the New York Times skyscraper tour. To be honest, I liked being able to take in some content that wasn’t prepackaged and edited to be consumed quickly. Even though I was online, it was nice to space out for a bit. It feels like way of being online that’s more in line with the ethos of Note To Self’s Bored and Brilliant project, which encourages stepping away from devices and embracing what boredom does for our brains.
How are you finding online ways to explore the world from home? We want to hear your ideas about how to bide the time in quarantine and feel connected to your community. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature your ideas in an upcoming edition
Watch your step,
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Share this newsletter with your friends!