Urban Isolation

By Stephen Hynes

Civilization is embodied in the common store of ideas that form how we think about our world. It is the tangible expression of our communal understanding. This understanding exists in the unique language of the people, who mould and develop it through conversation and interaction.

One of the least commented or understood aspects of modern civilization is that much of it doesn't really exist. There is no conversation or interaction. Much of what we believe about ourselves is a fiction that can only be sustained in isolation. Coinciding changes in modern architecture and communications have contributed to shaping an urban culture that actively promotes social isolation through built form and through unprecedented continuity of media access. The consequences are tangible shifts in the relationship between the individual and the community and the idea of public participation.

By chance or intention we have created in our cities an architecture that acts against our social spirits, creating spaces and relationships that make public interaction generally difficult, often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

Our residential buildings are an important example. Apartments are increasingly designed and marketed on the basis of the privacy and isolation they afford. The sales brochures are absolutely clear on this. They rarely show anyone. The clear emphasis is on what they think you are buying, and, more importantly, what they think they are selling. The pictures are of beautiful views, fine hotel washrooms, beautiful kitchens with unpronounceable appliance brands, close ups of hardware, fine food, wine and linens. The web sites play soothing background music, apparently unaware of the irony of the constantly repeated 30 second sound loop.

They would lead you to believe that you are able to pursue a life of luxurious solitude. They do not explain how this is possible in your 800 square foot downtown apartment on the 17 th floor of a 200 unit highrise, with eight other apartments on the same floor.

I am not picking on anyone here. Everyone does this. It is a social phenomenon that has developed both because it works and it is expected. It is a reflection of how we view ourselves, and an affirmation that we operate with paradigms and expectations that do not fit the cities we are building. The fact is that your neighbours will cook with curry and garlic, make noise, have loud parties and take out their garbage. There will be stains on the carpets and dents in the walls. People will pointlessly scratch the panels in the elevator, which will smell with the residue of leaking garbage. The view was perhaps the main reason you bought your apartment, but the windows will never be cleaned to your satisfaction. The enter phone system will reliably fail to operate and your car will be broken into, generally after someone else has had a garage door opener stolen from their car, giving thieves free access to the parking garage, and perhaps to the rest of the building.

This helps explain why meeting people in the hallway of a typical apartment building is unpleasant, with each person seeking absolutely minimal engagement. Meeting in the confined space of an elevator is even more awkward. People study their shoes, stare at a spot on the wall or pay attention to whatever they have in their hands. Strangers in the parking garage are a frightening prospect. Relief comes only when you reach the safety of your private apartment or car.

This is a problem of architecture. The process of creating these buildings is focused on saleable apartments. Everything else is irrelevant. There is no money to be made outside the well defined apartment box, and so the building in its every detail pushes you towards that box.

The second trend in modern culture began with television but has been powerfully accelerated and transformed by the remarkable advancements in computer and networking technologies.

Information technology has fundamentally changed the character of many businesses and the nature of work for a substantial and increasing proportion of the population. There are now only a few large companies engaged in creative enterprises, and most of these develop software. Most graphic designers, for example, work in offices with only one or two colleagues and many work alone. And many of the people engaged in supporting the technology that has enabled this to happen also work in very small organizations or completely alone.

These are people who in the last generation would probably have worked for large companies in advertising or technology, companies with an established corporate culture and social fabric, longterm projects, lunch rooms and watercoolers. They would have participated in face to face work with a variety of people with whom they would have shared common purposes and a sense of accomplishment. Talking about how to achieve their goals was a part of their work. In this generation they have become "consultants", and are left to do this all for themselves or to seek input or advice from other consultants.

Developments in electronic media and communications have created new classes of workers whose primary task interface is now through a machine. Huge numbers of people spend their entire working days in small cubicles in front of keyboards and monitors, many with a microphone headset attached to their head. We think of these as call centers, and indeed they are. But they do not merely take airline reservations or orders for Dell computers. Broad secretarial services, personal assistants, health advice and medical services, teaching assistants and full scale instruction are all provided by people harnessed to computers and headsets. Many corporations are developing internal services that operate on this model. A consortium of life insurance companies has created its own medical services infrastructure, with highly trained doctors evaluating life insurance applications and health claims, while another company is providing air traffic control operations - all in call center cubicles.

These people do an incredible array of things and there is a huge industry engaged in finding yet more for them to do. It is an interesting and efficient way both to deploy specialized resources and to harness large numbers of low skill workers. But it also represents the ultimate commoditization of work, and a significant step towards reducing our interest in others to the specific services they can perform. Only twenty years ago doctors and bankers were established and respected members of our community, pizzas were delivered by friendly college kids, and newspapers were delivered by kids on bikes who collected a few dollars at the door every month and left you with a little hand written receipt.

Advanced communications has allowed the cubicle culture to follow many of us home. There is no reason the computer and headset need to be located in a cubicle farm when the internet allows them to be located in our living rooms. And there are now a significant number of people both here and abroad who work at home or wherever they can connect to the internet, and are paid entirely on the basis of the time they spend online, taking or making calls for a wide variety of organizations. Their conversations are recorded and monitored by others who also work in this way. The advantage to the corporation is that it is relieved of nearly all of its responsibilities to the worker, who merely logs in at prescribed times. Working conditions are entirely irrelevant.

It is possible today to imagine someone working daily with a computer and headset in a cubicle, coming home to an apartment building that functionally isolates him from his neighbours, and spending his personal time watching television or using other electronic entertainment. It is even possible to imagine that the cubicle he uses is actually a desk in his apartment. His communications will tend to be single purpose exchanges mediated by a computer and monitored by a supervisor. Much of his waking life is spent with electronic interfaces. It is possible to imagine large numbers of people spending their lives in this way.

It is here that I return to the thesis that part of our civilization really doesn't exist. I believe that the combination of isolating architecture and isolating work profoundly weakens our perception of the world around us. It makes us susceptible to distortions, misrepresentations and fabrications.

It is only in isolation that we are open to the idea that our lives can be fundamentally altered by a depilatory cream or mouthwash, that a beer or automobile defines who we are, or that what generally passes as news is of any importance. In conversation our critical faculties are engaged. Depilatory claims are laughable and we openly wonder about the relevance of television news. But the more we hear these messages at times we are susceptible to them, the more they are internalized. Like learning a language, repetition creates familiar patterns that ultimately convey unquestioned meaning. There is no reason to believe - and many reasons not to believe - that this effect will be confined to depilatory creams and mouthwash.

These concurrent changes in architecture and communication technology are having a powerful influence on our social existence. We are a society in transition, and it is important that we be cognizant of the forces driving changes that will create for many of us a completely new way of thinking about community, social obligations and democracy.

It is equally important to think about how we might influence these forces and make both architecture and technology work to reduce social isolation, promote community and develop and improve democracy.