Still Stuck in Traffic (Again)Posted: October 12, 2012
When I tell people I have a blog, I usually say I write about cities and urbanism. The reason I find cities interesting enough to write about is straightforward: Cities are full of people. They’re the focal points of human civilization—where that civilization is made and where it manifests itself. If this weren’t true, there would be a lot less to say about cities.
Anyone who is interested in theaters of human activity—which cities are—should be equally fascinated by the internet, which is also full of people and concentrates the interactions between them. Like cities, the internet is another place where civilization is being produced and an ideal lens through which to observe said civilization. As the internet matures, it increasingly feels like a multitude of cities without buildings, and it becomes more entangled with the real cities that its users inhabit. Urbanists still study Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and read its prescriptions for streets, sidewalks, and buildings as sacred commandments; there’s a real need, however, for a new Jane Jacobs to make sense of and humanize the digital streetscapes where people now spend as much if not more of their time.
I’ve written a lot about Facebook on Kneeling Bus. If I seem obsessed with the social network it’s because of Facebook’s inescapable presence in the contemporary world. I’m tempted to say that Facebook itself is like a huge city, but that would actually be an understatement for something with more than a billion users. Instead of a city, Facebook is more like pure infrastructure: used by people everywhere for a multitude of purposes, and a common thread that runs through (and often defines) diverse, far-flung places.
Facebook has compared itself to a chair but if anything it’s like a car. That is, a Facebook account is a car and Facebook itself is the massive system of roads where we drive that car. As more parts of life become dependent on this infrastructure, it becomes less of a diversion and more of a chore. “I want to get rid of it, but I can’t,” is something I have heard many people say about their cars, and I’ve started hearing people (including myself) say it about Facebook. You can navigate the world without either, but doing so requires extra discipline and favorable circumstances—such as living in a city with good transit.
Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan recently made an optimistic but convincing argument that Facebook has become too big to fail. In other words, there’s a case for nationalizing the network. Roads and other transportation infrastructure have remained public for similar reasons—they need to stay open—but urban planners have been fixated on cars and the problems they cause ever since American cities were more or less rebuilt to accommodate them. As Facebook makes its transition from luxury to necessity, we might eventually view it with similar chagrin.