Are designers of social engagement anti-social?

I remember very clearly a day in April 1992 when I was walking in my adoptive city of New York and thinking about my native city of Los Angeles, which was at that moment roiling with the violence known as the Rodney King Riots.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not copycat or sympathetic riots might flare up in New York, but the prevailing calm made me think about the contrasts in the design of these two cities  and how those differences might have played a role in race relations.  Los Angelenos, of course, live in their cars, and one of the flaws with traveling autonomously around suburban sprawl is that segregation becomes absolute. To be blunt, L.A. has rich and middle-class white parts of town, and poor and working-class, black and latino parts of town; and there is no central transportation flow that forces people of different races to coexist at least for the duration of a commute.  This is an important contrast with a place like New York City, where the six-figure executive will ride elbow-elbow on the subway with the janitor; and this kind of systemically imposed interaction is of course the type of benefit urban planners aim for in their proposed designs.

New York Times OpEd by Allison Arieff, points to a contradiction between the use of urbanist lingo by tech giants to describe the virtual world and that industry’s general effect on the real city of San Francisco thus far.  As others have reported, companies like Facebook and Google are famously insular with elaborate, luxury campuses that obviate any need, let alone desire, to leave the office and patronize a local food shop, or more importantly, just be around people who don’t work for Facebook and Google.  San Franciscans have scoffed at the Facebook shuttles that ferry employees to work complete with wi-fi and comfy seating, while “regular residents” take public transportation.  And there’s nothing wrong with these company perks per se, but to echo what Areiff is saying with regard to tech companies now moving into the cities, there is certainly something odd about engineers of “social engagement and connectivity,” who choose not to engage with actual people.

“Tech tenants now fill 22 percent of all occupied office space in San Francisco — and represented a whopping 61 percent of all office leasing in the city last year. But they might as well have stayed in their suburban corporate settings for all the interacting they do with the outside world. The oft-referred-to “serendipitous encounters” that supposedly drive the engine of innovation tend to happen only with others who work for the same company. Which is weird.”

Read the full article at The New York Times.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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3 comments

  • Am I the only one who doesn’t find it surprising? They’re geeks, mostly – not exactly the paragons of people people (at least people who don’t share the same interests).

    And since it’s San Francisco we’re talking about, a lot of them happen to be rich geeks, as well. Rich people aren’t, as a rule, known for their keenness to mix with the hoi polloi either.

    This probably helps explain why social media is anything but (although some of it probably deserves the moniker “anti-social media”; they know who they are). Looking at Facebook, Twitter et al., I am reminded of my previous programming job and a meeting we had about putting our own product together. I was struck by the underlying current of trying to pick something that would be easy for us to do well, as opposed to something that solves an existing problem or satisfies an existing desire. I guess that’s how we got Twitter: the company that started off not knowing what its product was for (Facebook had some idea, at least). Still, there must be something we can say for having a product best described as “a whole thing”.

    Given how my entire programming education has been premised on “identify the client’s problems and produce the optimum solution”, I can only look on in bemused bewilderment.

  • SSo interesting…as for Los Angeles, I would agrue, to a degree, that things have changed somewhat and, as a city with a hugely diverse population, it isn’t as segregated as it once was.

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