Where physical and digital spaces meet

For his dissertation at the University of Toronto, Hampton studied an extraordinary early experiment in wired living. In the mid-1990s, a consortium that included IBM and Apple helped raise more than $100 million to turn a new suburban development in Newmarket, Ontario, a Toronto suburb, into the neighborhood of the future. As houses went up, more than half of them got high-speed Internet (this in the age of dial-up), advanced browser software for their computers, a tool for videoconferencing between houses and a Napster-like tool for music sharing. He treated the other homes as a control group. From October 1997 through August 1999, Hampton lived in a basement apartment in the new development, observing and interviewing his neighbors.

Hampton found that, rather than isolating people, technology made them more connected. “It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,” Hampton said. Not only that, he said, they spoke with neighbors on the phone five times as often and attended more community events. Altogether, they were much more successful at addressing local problems, like speeding cars and a small spate of burglaries. They also used their Listserv to coordinate offline events, even sign-ups for a bowling league. Hampton was one of the first scholars to marshal evidence that the web might make people less atomized rather than more. Not only were people not opting out of bowling leagues — Robert Putnam’s famous metric for community engagement — for more screen time; they were also using their computers to opt in.

Lots more here, all interesting. Of course, since that time the iPhone and smartphones in general descended on the world and pushed us even deeper across the membrane separating the physical world from the digital one, but it's good to see actual quantitative research into the effects of technology. The reflexive reaction is generally negative.

Based on visits to parks and plazas in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, Montreal and Venice, Whyte and his acolytes formulated conclusions that were, for their time, counterintuitive. For example, he discovered that city people don’t actually like wide-open, uncluttered spaces. Despite the Modernist assumption that what harried urban people need are oases of nature in the city, if you bother to watch people, you see that they tend to prefer narrow streets, hustle and bustle, crowdedness. Build a high-rise with an acre of empty plaza around it, and the plaza may seem desolate, even dangerous. People will avoid it. If you want people to linger, he wrote, give them seating — but not just benches, which make it impossible for people to face one another. Movable chairs can be better. Also: Never cordon off a fountain. “It’s not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it,” Whyte wrote in his 1980 book, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” People want to splash, dip their toes, throw coins. He believed that dense greenery can make places feel less safe, that people find the fishbowl effect of sunken plazas disconcerting and, presciently, that food trucks draw crowds. Whyte’s insights were incorporated into 1975 revisions of New York’s zoning code, and the Bryant Park Corporation — credited with turning around the once-squalid park — bases its work on many of his principles.


The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces collects more of these fascinating observations on urban design from William Whyte. I browsed my friend's copy years ago and found a lot that was counter-intuitive to this armchair urban planner.

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there’s still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone — even while relaxing at the park. But that’s a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren’t nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect.

When I met Hampton, he proved this point by gesturing around us, at our fellow diners at the Bryant Park Grill, where we were eating on a beautiful summer day, and at the hundreds of others beyond us in the park, enjoying the sun at tables, in chairs and on the lawn beyond us. “In the busiest public spaces, where there are a lot of groups, like this kind of public space, it’s like 3 percent,” he said. “Three percent. I can’t even see someone on a cellphone right now, but yet how many times have you seen a story that says, ‘People on cellphones in public spaces is rude, it’s creating all sorts of problems, people are walking into traffic.’ I mean, we really have a strong sense that it’s everywhere.”

Hampton’s project offers an explanation for that misperception. It turns out that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones. On the steps of the Met, “loiterers” — those present in at least two consecutive film samples, inhabiting the same area for 15 seconds or more — constituted 7 percent of the total (that is to say, the other 93 percent were just passing through). That was a 57 percent increase from 30 years earlier. And those using mobile phones there were five times as likely to “loiter” as other people. In other words, not that many people are talking, or reading, texting or playing Candy Crush on the phone, but those who do stick around longer.

It's commonly accepted that not only are smartphones are stealing people's attention from the real world, it's not socially healthy. Our attention spans are getting shorter, we are not paying attention to other people, our relationships are more shallow and transient when pulled through the narrow digital pipes of social networking services.

More omnipresent internet connectivity, smartphones, and the proliferation of Internet services that are never-ending firehoses of information of variable quality have turned the world into a giant information Skinner box, and I'm as guilty as anyone of succumbing to the temptation. Most of us spend more of our lives now retreating from the physical world into a world of information.

Is that inherently bad? Conventional wisdom has been a harsh judge, but for now I'm withholding judgment. I don't doubt there are some truly perverse downsides at the extremes on sociability, physical health, and perhaps even mental focus, but I'd love more in-depth discussion of the positives. For example, television, regarded in decades past as intellectually corrosive, has been proven to have significant positive social effects in countries where it becomes widespread.