Our public spaces hold so much potential for rehearsing our humanity. But increasingly, what Brooke Gladstone refers to as “in here / out there” in her short book The Trouble with Reality, or, how our limited fields of perception hinder our ability to coalesce around an agreed upon conception of reality, is fraying the way we encounter strangers. And trends in both the digital and physical design of human interactions are responsible for mediating connections between people around less desirable social dynamics.
With the planning of cities taking shape around the priorities of business while also absorbing the user logic of ease and consumption of technology (see: Hudson Yards / Related; Toronto / Sidewalk Labs), the design of more of our public spaces is converging around the mutually reinforcing paradigms of branded entertainment and security (source). Governed by our city governments’ fear and more concretely, legal concepts such as the “right to be free from fear”, artificial bubbles of comfort are created as a way to maintain order in public spaces while designing away the collisions, tensions and differences that create the vibrancy and diversity of the rich cultures that attract people to cities in the first place. Fred Kent made me take stock of just how inhospitable many of our public seating options are, which are by design made to dissuade unwanted people from sitting there.
What about our right to live in community and in communion with others?
These bubbles of comfort are meant to keep public life to a reasonable and contrived range of predictability. Amanda Hess put it beautifully in the NYTimes: “In these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself”. Referring back to Fournier’s forms of community affiliation, these are nothing more than static pools absent even a modicum of authenticity.
Social media spaces, meanwhile, had (and perhaps still have) the potential to be as expansive in their possibilities for human encounters given the flexibility that their forms hold. That potential was something that the Committee for National Morale, a presidential advisory committee for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, experimented with in the 40s as they sought to disrupt fascism, whose symptoms they saw re-enacted through the top-down, one-to-many leader and mindless followers dynamics of mass media. In the 50s and 60s, John Cage’s Happenings were designed with the same intentions, namely to create a plurality of options, and enough dissonance to make room for people to choose what they resonated with instead of being spoon fed normative options (source).
This is a choice that civic leaders and cultural change makers still have: design for human agency rather than for blind consumption.
Our moment is one of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Couple that with the fact that trust in institutions is frittering, and we see a growing share of “unaffiliated” Americans searching for ideological north stars in a fragmented landscape of merchants of truth. As a consequence, the process by which we choose whether or not to believe something is more likely to be influenced by who said it and the polarizing forces of collective belief formation. Look no further than the baffling polls that showed an almost overnight change of heart in Republicans’ attitudes about Russia for example, as Republican politicians all of a sudden changed their tune in order to more or less get in line with the President’s bizarre allegiances.
Similarly, some of the key people shaping public discourse are now self made social influencers peddling either bad faith or sometimes misguided ideas. In their haste to create an endless stream of content, they fail to fully grasp the power their invocations have on communities they are abstracted from because of the mimetic megaphone of digital hubs like Youtube, where people don’t have strong allegiances to one another or the benefit of traditional sites of vigorous collective debate but instead share a fondness for a charismatic leader.
Ten years ago, many were hopeful that the power to self identify in some social media spaces, what Tricia Wang calls “fluid media”, would allow us to embody multitudes and define ourselves as we see fit — perhaps as a stamp collector one one platform, mother on another, and activist on yet another. Some of that has taken place, but algorithmic forces have only helped to rigidify and consolidate our identities and congeal them in spaces that resemble rooms of distorted mirrors, the disastrous effects for public discourse of which have been widely documented.
Communicating important messages in these spaces first requires us to create spaces with propitious ‘spatial acoustics’ that allow for people to see each other, to see the other, and have generous encounters that create enough room for new narratives to emerge and take shape.
I recently went to a small gathering of people where we eagerly awaited the arrival of a 2020 candidate. You could feel a subtle anxious energy permeating the room. People were looking around, almost as though trying to gauge if the people in the room were a flattering mirror. “Am I like these people?” we seemed to be asking ourselves, “is this where I want to belong?”. What’s fascinating is that when the candidate finally came blazing through the front doors of the food market where we had all congregated, the awkwardness immediately thawed and everyone erupted in cheers. A warm energy suddenly animated the space, which was just moments ago filled with a kind of indescribable trepidation.
It made me think about the difficulty in nurturing communities, or infusing them with trust and sowing relationships not only between a candidate and its followers, but alimenting a much more robust kind of relationship between community members themselves, especially as they encounter each other in person for one of the first times. Referring to our taxonomy of communities, we are in dire need of interconnected webs (although I don’t agree with Susan Fournier’s designation of Facebook as one; I surmise she might also revise that categorization ten years after its publication). That dynamic made me recall this passage by Seth Godin:
While there are a few outlier organizations and individuals who ‘have’ a tribe, more often than not, we simply have the privilege to talk to a community, to connect a community and perhaps to lead them for a while.
But it’s a mistake to believe that they are ours to do with as we choose.
The tribe of people who follow a politician are rarely aligned with her, personally. Instead, they’re aligned with each other, with the way it feels to be part of this movement. Over time, the tribe and the leader inevitably drift apart.
Tribal leaders are in a hurry, a race to connect and inspire. Tribal leaders dig deep to be seen, sure, but mostly to see. To see what the group believes and fears, and to help them get to where they hope to go.
The realization that the tribe is already there, just waiting for you to contribute, is energizing. And the fact is that while we get the benefit of the doubt — that the tribe is open to hearing from you — they’re not yours.
As Elias Canetti posited in Crowds and Power, we both “fear the touch of the unknown”, yet paradoxically, “as soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch (ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count’)”.
Nick Fortugno asked whether or not we will make the decision to design against our human tendency to stick to our strong tie networks given what we know about the critical importance of loose tie networks to our collective health. “What can we do that will allow people to intersect in ways that are healthy and safe but that give them the ability to reach outside of their tight little networks and start feeling like they are a part of communities — and how do we resist the technologies that atomize us?”.
Pat Cadigan offered perhaps the simplest antidote in that regard, saying that all we need is for everyone to take public transportation as a way to not self segregate via the convenience of our technological tools.
And Andrea Miller talked to me about creating a choreography of strangers with obstacles in it, as a way of waking us from our slumber and reacquainting ourselves with the strangers who surround us every day. “I think harmony and conflict aren’t such that you want to avoid conflict and achieve harmony. They’re both necessary. I think it was Martin Luther King who said that no change happens without tension. Tension is the thing that pushes people to move, shift, accommodate, adjust […] There’s no way but through.”
Our spaces have the ability to make crowds feel like an electrifying, kinetic hug, to nourish and amplify our capacity to feel and to act. Perhaps it’s realizing what Eula Biss offered in her book, “On Immunity”:
The unvaccinated person is protected by the bodies around her, bodies through which disease is not circulating. But a vaccinated person surrounded by bodies that host disease is left vulnerable to vaccine failure or fading immunity. We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here. Donations of blood and organs move between us, exiting one body and entering another, and so too with immunity, which is a common trust as much as it is a private account. Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.
How we measure something transforms how we view it. What if we viewed the success of a space by its ability to increase the “bump rate” between people? In other words what if a space welcomed the serendipity that the social and cultural density of urban spaces affords us instead of chasing it away or over-engineering it? These conversations have led me to believe that it’s time to design better conversations among strangers, which can only happen when leaders invite people in and focus their energies not only on starting new conversations, but on changing the rules of a space, engaging people’s discomfort and seeding new stories that people can then take and bring dimension, definition and life to based on their lived experience.
This article is based on my first podcast (The Third Person) series, Wild Bodies & Space.