Not often do I think of myself as creative or innovative — I admit that the weekly inventory of weird search queries has caught on quite well, but these guys were there first — but on those rare occasions when I think I've done something New and Improved, it's seldom because of an encounter with J. Random Commuter.

There are, you may be sure, those who will argue to the contrary:

"The reality in this new era is that innovation come from opportunities to have face-to-face conversations to stimulate one another with new ideas. But by separating ourselves from that experience so we can live in our suburban house, get in our car, go to the office, then go back again and never encounter anybody, what you prevent is the unexpected experience that might get you to think about something in a new way."

That's Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Design, as quoted by James Lileks, and Lileks can't make head or tail of it either:

Forgive me for being thick, but what in the name of Corbu is he talking about? Is he really suggesting that a society's intellectual vitality is dependent on everyone sitting in the same light-rail train car having face-to-face conversations? What if I want to tune everyone out with, say, an iPod? What if I choose to read a book on the way in? Will the Design Paradigm Reassessment Police walk up and down the aisles to make sure no one is lost in some private reverie when they could — nay, should — be talking to someone else for their daily New Stimulating Idea? Apparently that's the highest organizing principle for a society, at least when it comes to transportation.

So there's no one at the office, then. So there's nothing on the radio that might stimulate new ideas or new thinking. There's nothing to be found in the skyways when you walk out for lunch. The only people who matter, inasmuch as they are the ones who will stimulate new ideas when you talk to them (face to face, which is necessary) are people on the bus. And if the bus moves slowly, because it's better to have an urban experience than rush home to your solipsistic cocoon, well, then you've more time to marinate in the wondrous daily interchange with other people.

That can't happen in the suburbs. Oh, no. Everyone in the suburbs is the same.

I detect just the faintest hint of deflection on the old Sarcasm Meter (Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.) But Dr Fisher isn't quite through yet:

"Look at the city. We started to separate people from their workplace and impose this dreadful ordeal of commuting back and forth."

Ordeal, indeed. Possibly even dreadful. Or maybe not. Lileks again:

We started? Did we finish? The only people who were not separated from their workplace were the ones who lived in a room above the store. And even that wasn't the dominant model. Even Scrooge was separated from his workplace. In the 1920s people commuted to work downtown or in the factories; they either drove — boo, hiss — or more likely took the streetcar system. If you want "a dreadful ordeal," try waiting every day in the rain or snow for a drafty old box that rattles you home at 20 MPH, then drops you off at a corner where you must assemble your daily provisions from a variety of retailers, then walk them home yourself another nine blocks.

No, it's not dreadful; it's what people did, and having lived in a marvelously inconvenient inner city myself, I've done it too. Big deal. But note how we imposed a dreadful ordeal on people. The freeways clouded men's minds, made them want to live far away for no reason, no reason at all that we can see. Their minds besotted by the siren song of the concrete ribbon, they endure a daily commute, unable to consider other options, such as living closer to their place of employment. Imposition is the only explanation, some sort of force that cannot be resisted. Why wouldn't any sensible person want to live in an older house at greater expense in a neighborhood with less safety and smaller personal space?

Personal: there's that funny word again.

And what makes it funny is that the personal, insist the planners and movers and shakers and Designers, is of necessity political. Well, it's necessary for them, anyway; it's what keeps the checks rolling in. For those of us with this weird idea that we should be able to live pretty much anywhere we goddamn please so long as we cover our expenses, the conflation of the personal and the political is somewhere between perverse and offensive.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to argue that everyone who lives in the city ought to drive everywhere, and indeed I support expansion of mass transit in central Oklahoma, to include some form of rail if they can figure out how to sneak it past ODOT and its asphalt-happy friends. I expect that said transit will not be self-supporting, as it's not in most places in this country, and that taxpayer subsidies will make up the difference. And that doesn't bother me a great deal; the taxes I pay go to a lot of things I don't actually use myself. (Supporting Oklahoma City Public Schools costs me a few hundred dollars a year, though my children are grown and their children don't live here. Not a problem.)

But I refuse to allow some addlepated professorial types to get away with selling the preposterous notion that to be a Truly Fine Citizen I must give up my wheels and my back yard and my privacy for the sake of dubious interaction with people I moved across town to get away from in the first place. (And I remind you that I used to be nine miles from downtown: now it's less than five.) I like where I live; it's mostly quiet and generally neat. I have black neighbors, Vietnamese neighbors, Latino neighbors, gay neighbors, and I doubt very seriously that any of them moved here out of a sense of social obligation. You can't "design" these things; the best you can do is to observe the evolution — for indeed that's what it is — and, as much as possible, stay out of its way.

The Vent

#524
  7 March 2007

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