Jane Jacobs and the Internet

Over the last few years there have been many times when people ask me the same question: why on earth did you decided to study architectural history instead of information systems for a phd? It is a reasonable question, but one that I am tired of answering. I do digital policy and strategy. If we lived in an offline world I would most likely be involved in research and policy work anyway, but it just happens that we have a communication and information medium that faces issues and I enjoy the work that I do around it. But why not do research in this area instead?

Architecture and indeed the interaction of humans with their environment is not so different than the interaction that people and cultures have with the web and Internet. Some live an environment where there is heritage to preserve and new buildings to interact with. Others have infinite opportunities while many have the built environment imposed on them. And often people find their own solutions to ways around and through the built environment.

It is Jane Jacobs’ idea of cities that translates most to the web and Internet today. I won’t go into great detail on her philosophy, but she argues that cities are messy, spontaneous, and random. Certain points of contact – like the corner pub or corner shop – play an important role in enabling connections both planned and unplanned. Furthermore, she argues against strong central planning by government. This reminds us of Hayek’s sage advice to beware the central planners. We can see real parallels to her ideas online. The development of Internet infrastructure was not planned and did grow out of the US because the country provided economic freedom to enable investment and experimentation. And of course the corner point of contacts reminds us of the MySpace of old or Facebook of today.

The important analogy is that planning and government intervention does not work or works poorly. Jane Jacobs herself first got involved with city planning when she was protesting against a planned flyover in New York City akin to the old San Francisco Embarcadero Freeway, now demolished.  The double decker route would cut through the center of New York upsetting neighborhoods and corner stores. Jane and her community successfully prevented the construction of the it in the end, but not without many meetings and arguments with local government.

My point here is that letting people act freely without central planning leads to yet unknown interactions. This is true in my neighborhood right now and online in the battles over website blocking and filtering. Unintended consequences of state intervention creates disincentivisaiton and a stifled economy. There is no doubt that this is true in city planning (think post-war estates) or online (over blocking).

There is more work to be done in networks, city planning, spontaneous order and the Internet. Manuel Castells among others have made the connection via the network or networking online, but it goes further that just that. The ideas mentioned are about a way of looking at the world that believes the individual knows best. And so that is why I study architecture and work in digital policy.


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