So I just finished participating in an amazing leadership conference. The name and other info I will not be sharing but, at the end of this conference the ten groups of students made pitches to three somewhat powerful people and these pitches were of ideas that would make our city better. All of the ideas though were apps/websites or some combination thereof, which I find somewhat problematic.
Besides access problems, which people think can be solved by access to library computers and other public places with computers, the problem with apps, especially those to create a sense of community or connection, is that they do not actually work against the problem they are trying to solve.
What I mean is, we now live in what I will be calling a vertical society. By a vertical society I mean a society in which public spaces are small and generally places to be avoided and as much as possible is cut off from public spaces as possible. Think of all of the doors one has to pass through every single day, I know there are security and weather concerns too, but in a metaphorical sense, think of all of those doors. Each one is open only to you and those who meet the same or similar requirements as you do. I do not know for sure but say a library, is someone who is homeless allowed to actually step in without being herded out by security? I am pretty sure this holds true for the university doors I step through every day. The homeless individual does not meet the requirements of looking like a student or VIP and then gets shuffled out probably, back into the limited public space there is. In short, in vertical cultures there is a clear line between private and public life and the various types of public life one can have. Apps and websites do not actually fix this. Instead, they operate within the confines of this type of society.
Apps and websites allows one to stay within their private life until they decide to go into a public place and meet with specific others to do something, in another policed, more private public space. To put an image to it, one person lives on the 8th floor of an apartment building and is on their computer and gets in contact with a group of people who also live on various floors in various apartment buildings. This group decides to get together to chat, so they go downstairs onto the street, the purely public space, meet at some pre-determined point and then proceed to a restaurant, cafe, bar, club, another apartment etc. All of these are “public” yes but not purely public like the street is where one can bump into every single possible type of individual there is. The only equivalent in a city might be a public park but that probably depends on the specific laws within the city. Apps and websites are useful in this sort of situation in getting people to meet with each other and possibly form communities, but these non-spontaneous sorts of meetings are limited in various forms.
The first and probably most important is, it means one can avoid meeting people with different views from themselves. Access to the internet has made everything customizable, including who you talk to, the main exception to that is family probably since you can avoid talking to you co-workers to an extent. This customization though can cause problems I think, it allows for the extreme viewpoints who just screech at each other across the room instead of people being able to hold discussions. This also weakens the sense of a need for public spaces which then allows stricter laws to be put into place thus weakening our rights of public assembly and putting marginalized groups into even harder situations. I do not think apps and websites can actually fully solve this sort of a problem. Instead, to deal with this will take a conscious decision by each individual and our society as a whole, to become a more horizontal society.
By horizontal society I do mean the opposite of a vertical society. A horizontal society would have much less clearly defined private and public lives, have much larger and broader public spaces. Life would be focused on the public life and lived mostly there, it would be like Ancient Greece I guess with the Agora. Everyone and anyone can stroll around and end up there without being pushed out. Things would happen spontaneously too, meetings, speeches, etc. No, everyone would not sit in a circle and sing peace songs, but it be much harder for an individual to entirely customize their experience of their surroundings and friends. You could actually end up speaking to someone you consider an enemy or opponent, in person, you would have to find some way to deal with the fact that they are another human standing in front of you. It suddenly becomes a lot harder to act in some ways towards that opponent when you are forced to accept that they are a living, breathing human who also has a life I expect.
Apps and websites are great, do not get me wrong, I am not saying we need to step backwards technologically, I think we just need to be aware that technology is not the solution to everything, especially not human community.