Thursday, July 9, 2009

Space Shift: Technology and Social Change

-Part II of a series-
Click here for Part I: A Historical Perspective
Click here for Part III: The Basis of Good Space

I'd love to be writing about a new generation of Americans that are shrugging off the allure of material goods and making communal decisions that promote the common good--but I'm not that delusional. I tend to believe that while people's mental tendencies change very slowly (generations), the expression of those tendencies can be altered quite rapidly by new technology.

Americans aren't lining up for the Model T or the new washing machine or the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence--they're lining up for the iPhone. They spend their time following each others social interactions on facebook and Myspace and interact in an increasingly cluttered world through tiny snippets on Twitter. The internet has brought the world to our fingertips and we've realized that it (the world) is larger than we could have possibly realized.

The internet is incredibly important to understand in the context of the problem it solves and the other solutions that it will displace.

As transportation capacity increased and societies became more mobile around 150 years ago, it became apparent that world was far too complicated for people to be able to make fully informed decisions. Simplifications were seen as increasingly desirable.

Where as before, a single butcher may have served a neighborhood on the basis of personal contact and trust, now, that population had access to a dozen different butchers and judging their relative merit was no easy task. The butchers that advertised the merits of their brand (reality notwithstanding) grew their client base and eventually drove others out of business.

Customers became consumers and personalities became demographics. Instead of a dozen small butcher shops catering to their customers needs, a handful of conglomerates extracted the maximum economic value out of each consumer. Though these conglomerates became increasingly complex to operate, to the consumer, they were a godsend. No more asking neighbors for advise, or buying dubious guides. Instead, wherever you go, that comfortable brand is waiting for you.

Though it's certainly not the only way (see Zagat), the internet casts away the need for extensive sleuthing when it comes to making consumptive decisions. Sites like Yelp cover the entire country with reviews and online product guides like Good Guide will soon be adding features that allow a consumer to scan any product with their phone to bring up detailed information. You certainly don't have time to learn about every single ingredient in the sunscreen you're buying, but someone else does. The internet can tell you all you want to know--without simplification.

The reason I bring all this up is because the re-customerization of consumers is exerting a pressure on society as the technology pushing it moves faster than our society seems willing to move. While one reason for the foot dragging seems financial (I think it will also be solved through the internet) another--arguably more important--is built right into our environment.

Most of our built space was designed for a top down approach to the economy, while the internet is ushering in a new era of massively distributed enterprise. Those places that are currently prospering are those whose built space supports a bottom up sort of economy. More than just offering low barriers to entry, these places bring throngs of people into close contact with one another to stimulate creativity and the growth of culture.

And though the modal choice folks might not yet realize it, the next guiding mantra is: "Bring people together."

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