New Communications Media Encourage Urban Living

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 25, 2010

On the heels of a recent report that found declining driving rates among young people, Alexis Madrigal argues in The Atlantic that the growing ubiquity of mobile network-connected devices encourages city living and transit:

Car time is wasted time, but commuting time doesn't have to be. Look at well-heeled Silicon Valley companies. They offer their employees cushy, WiFi-enabled buses for commuting. That first hour of the day, Apple and Google employees are banging out emails and getting ready for the day, not sitting in traffic carrying out a set of repetitive, low-level, and occasionally dangerous tasks to maneuver their exoskeletons southward.

Madrigal cites historian David Nye, who explains that networks provide more value when they interoperate. The 20th century highway and road network that allowed people to live in the suburbs would not have been as effective without the compatible electricity grids, radio networks and constellations of consumer appliances that made comfortable suburban living possible.

The 20th century communications framework of one-to-many broadcasting was also compatible with driving itself, since consuming broadcasts is essentially a passive activity that frees the consumer to concentrate on the mechanics of driving.

As the dominant communications framework transitions from one-to-many broadcasting into many-to-many data transfer over the internet, that compatibility is being disrupted.

Madrigal concludes:

Infrastructure is a viscous social structure, so I have no illusions that a century-old transportation system and its attendant urban forms are suddenly going to disappear. But it's all the networks we layer on top of one another -- information, power, transportation, water -- that help determine the social desirability of a place.

And mobile devices tapping on wireless networks can exert a powerful social influence, as we've all noticed. They could help tip the scales towards denser city living, or at least shorter commutes, for the wired workforce.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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