January 20, 2003

The Suburbanization of Information

Just took a half an hour to get a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop (which in Manhattan means Starbucks 98% of the time). Actually sat down and read the physical newspaper for once. Forgot what a pleasure it is to sit down with the paper literally spread in front of you.

What struck me the most was the way I ended up reading articles I never would have come close to online. It felt like riding the New York subways after spending an extend period of time in segregated California towns like San Francisco and LA.

Los Angeles in particular has infrastructure of segregation brilliantly analyzed by Mike Davis in _City of Quartz_ and _Ecology of Fear_. Leave your suburban castle, protected from the neighbors by a moat of grass. Jump in your air conditioned car, and if your extra paranoid you'll have an extra gate around the whole community to pass through. Jump on the freeway and move at warp speed over all that great American diversity. No need to look at it at all, be hard to if you tried. You're in a climate controlled environment sealed off from realities of poverty and diversity. Sure you might tip the valet, as you slip into your office, and say high to the Baja Fresh counterperson, but that's the limit to your exposure to people from other cultural groups.

The New York subway on the other hand is a great equalizer. On one side of you is a young millionaire stockbroker, on the other a hard working deliveryman fresh from Guatemala. Across the way a middle aged black PR impresario. Selling batteries and small toys is a man from the Fujian Provence in China. A Dominican couple snuggles together in the loveseats found at the end of each car. Every New York commute is a reminder that America is the land of diversity, the place where people struggle to chase their dreams.

Physical newspapers play a similar mixing role, especially those that strive towards mass market audience. The more people they try to attract, the broader the mix of news stories. Turning the pages and sorting the sections is a constant reinforcement of the diversity of information in the world. We may ignore large chunks of it, but somewhere inside we know that other people actually do care about the sports section, science section, international affairs or the local stories.

As more and more people go online for news, we are losing site of the mix. News aggregators, blogs, email alerts and customizable websites give us a tremendous ability to focus our information. We surround ourselves with the news that we want to hear/see/feel. We can zip around in snug little information cocoons, isolated from the harsh reality of different ways of thinking. Those nasty conflicting viewpoints are relegated to trashbin of somebody else's RSS feed.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm and information junkie and the internet is my main source of info, and will remain so for a while. The ability to focus and amplify our our preferred data is a tremendous boost to our ability to learn. But there is a dark side to every advance, one that we need to anticipate and deal with. Lets remember that there is an information world outside our internet bookmarks and Amazon wish lists. And its healthy to get out and stroll through it from time to time.

Posted by Abe at January 20, 2003 04:06 PM


this is very poor work...san francisco more segregated than new york? indeed! and the subway as an equalizer? when were you last in new york, my friend? when were you last on the muni? think about new york, now, think...

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