The Big Sort, The Uses of Disorder and mobile media

I just read two books – written almost 40 years apart – that signal the same urban problem: cities and towns in the United States are becoming increasingly segregated into monocultural lifestyle enclaves – like flocks to like. This made me wonder what role locative and mobile media might play in this process.

In his recent book The Big Sort Bill Bishop writes that over the last decades American cities and towns have become segregated physcially. Republican neighborhoods have turned increasingly republican. That is: in many republican electoral precincts the margin with which the republican candidate beats his or her democratic opponent grows with each new election cycle. Meanwhile districts with a high percentage of second-hand bookshops, volvos and other insignia of democratic allegiance are attracting more and more democratic voting constitutents

This is, Bishop argues, not the result of gerrymandering, political conspiracy or even conscious political selection. Instead Bishop sees a handful of other factors. The first is simply affluence: if we can afford it, most of us prefer to live next door to people who are like us. The second is the growing importance of differential lifestyles and cultural values in all aspects of life. Churches might be one of the best examples of this shift. Forty or fifty years ago a church would be attracting people from all different politcal denominations, class or occupations. They formed a node in which different lifestyles met and interacted. Increasingly, churches market themselves to a particular lifestyle niche. Bishop: ‘There is no longer national ‘brand loyalty’ in regard to relgion. There are however local micro-brands. Ministers try to market their church to ind a niche, whether its being open to gays or lesbians or being strong as a pro-life church’. This focus on lifestyle is found in all aspects of life, and when people are looking for a place to live, they simply select an area that fits their cultural preferences: does it have the right kind of bookshops? The right kind of coffeeshops and restaurants? Etc

So is this sorting a bad thing? Yes, Bishop argues. To make this point, he lines up a defence of social psychologists. They state that people who only meet people from within their own community or peer group tend to become more extreme in their views. So not only are Republicans and Democrats retreating in their own circles, they are also growing less moderately in their opinions – and less willing to take the views from others in consideration – because of this. (Interesting, although I must say that I sometimes find his arguments somwhat confusing. On the one hand Bishop writes that culture is fragmenting in smaller and smaller niches, on the other there seems to be only two choices left: either you are republican, pro-life, against gun control, and pro hunting. Or you’re in the democratic pro-choice, ecological, big-government camp

If this all sounds familiar, it could be because a similar point was made about four decades ago by Richard Sennett in The Uses of Disorder, be it on psychoanalytic rather than poltical or social psychologic grounds.

Like Bishop, Sennett argued that modern cities had lost their nodes of ‘multiplicity contacts.’ Writing about cities in the first half of the 20th century:

‘each piece of the city mosaic had a distinct character, but the pieces were open and this was what made life urban. Individuals had the capacity and the need to penetrate a number of social regions in the course of daily activities even though the regions were not harmoniously organized and may even have been at warring ends. … It is this muliplicity of contact point that has died out in the city, in its stead social acitvities have come to be formed in a more coherent mold.

With his statistical evidence, Bishop’s books proves that Sennett wasn’t only right in his observations, but that the trend has become even more prevalent, even though Sennett himself had hoped that a new generation would eventually get bored by their homogeneous lifeworlds

I am not sure whether this trend is mainly a US one, or a world-wide one. And of course when talking about media practices, they will play out differently in different cultural contexts. I wondered though what the use of mobile and locative media could mean for this trend. To me it seems that they have the capacity to both stimulate as well as counter this trend, yet at this moment I would argue the former is more prevalent.

Sennett’s solution to the problem of geographical fragmentation was in line with the revolutionary character of the era in which the book was written: more anarchy. If there were less rules about zoning, behaviour and the like, people with different backgrounds would have to interact with each other to come up with solutions. This would force them to have them relate to each other directly and this will prove their stereotypical ideas about the other wrong. Conflict, he states, is a good thing, and not something that should be avoided. And so is disorder.

I think Sennet has a point there, although the idea to be forced into all these meetings, assemblies and informal get-togethers to work out all the little and big conflicts of everyday life doesn’t sound that appealing to me. But are there perhaps known good practices of how locative or mobile media might play a role here? Can these media bring different people together in what Sennett calls ‘Survival Communities’?

City planning, Sennett writes should not aim to make life in the city as efficient as possible, it should leave room for appropriation and especially disorder and confrontation. Should our mobile media interfaces do the same thing? Could the domains of locative gaming or digital situationism be meaningful in these ways?

Many commercial services are marketed in the exact opposite way: they are promoted as devices that make (working) life more efficient, that enable to personalize and filter your surroundings according to your own lifestyle. They do away with all the disorder around you – or least will class and clarify it for you. This, I would argue, does make life more pleasant. But will it in the long run indeed increase geographical apartheid, promote poltical extremism and erode solidarity?

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)