A brief interview for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, to accompany their publication of my article “Fear in the bones and the right to the city.”
In your work, you write about you and your girlfriend having the “choice to live downtown,” which intrinsically means accepting certain risks and physical dangers in your life. Do you think there is attraction in danger, since you choose this?
I’m sure for some privileged people, there is attraction to danger for its own sake — some fondness for the endocrine rush someone experiences when they deliberately place themselves in situations that pose imminent threat to life and limb. The key, though, in such circumstances, is that it’s always supposed to be a manageable situation. And “manageable” is not the very first word that springs to mind when I’m asked to describe Avenue B in 1986.
And anyway, that’s not what I moved to the East Village for. I moved there simply because it was a neighborhood that was both convenient to my school and cheap enough for me to afford living with my girlfriend. Another way of framing this is to note that whatever danger there may have been for me in those blocks, it was the fruit of some other, underlying circumstance, and that circumstance also produced other conditions which happened to be desirable — in this case, cheap rent, personal and artistic freedom, and the company of other people who were also engaged in the project of reinventing themselves. And those qualities were rare and special enough that it was worth taking on whatever level of risk I faced. But, again: for me, as for a decent percentage of the people around me, that was a choice I got to make. Other people living on our block were never asked to rank neighborhoods they might move to in order of lifestyle preferences.
With regard to the present “age of technological acceleration,” digital developments can provide necessary information, as you notice, to deal with fear. How do you consider the rapid development of digital, online relations/communities, or, in your terms “networks of weak ties”? In other words: is the growing digitalisation of interpersonal contact the new form of “weak ties,” or does it endanger them?
Well, look: urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to Gregory Smithsimon have observed that public space is necessarily a space of negotiation — negotiation for limited spatial resources, with people who have different goals, ends, intentions and values than we ourselves happen to hold. As it happens, this is true even in something as simple as sharing the space of a sidewalk, when we use it to get between points A and B: we pay close attention to the ways in which other people indicate they intend to use the space, as they do our own, and all of us make constant, swift, subtle adjustments to our own speed and trajectory to keep things flowing. It’s a process that sociologist Lyn Lofland calls “cooperative motility,” and the carrying capacity of our pedestrian mobility infrastructure turns out to be entirely dependent on it.
But what happens when seventy, eighty percent of the people using the sidewalk aren’t really psychically or emotionally present to it? When they’re texting someone, or chatting with them via a Bluetooth headset, or looking up an address on Google Maps? They fail to attend to other users of the space, they have a much harder time performing the little dance of minute accelerations, retards and course corrections that cooperative motility requires, and everyone suffers as a result. The flow of the entire sidewalk bunches up, knots up, slows down. You can see this happen every single day on the streets of Manhattan, or, I’d wager, any other big city.
And part of what I’m arguing is that an analogous process is taking place in our interpersonal relations. To some degree, because our networked social media give us the option of surrounding ourselves with people who are demographically and psychologically similar to ourselves, we appear to be forgetting how to coexist peaceably with those who are not. The tendency is, if anything, toward stronger ties with a network of people who have more in common with us, which is the opposite of the scenario Granovetter described. And this is a problem, because maintaining functioning democracy in a heterogeneous society absolutely requires that we, again, negotiate with those with whom we share nothing at all but an address.
Furthermore, as Sennett and others have long argued, it’s clear that the necessity of engaging in that negotiation is extraordinarily good for us. It’s how we grow as citizens and citydwellers, it’s how we become who we are. We need risk and contestation not because they’re glamorous, or because we get a frisson of temporary, egotistical satisfaction from surmounting them, but because they’re vital to the project of becoming fully human. And that’s something that I’d prefer to see reflected more often and with more sensitivity in the design of networked information systems.
To me, your work reads implicitly as a plea for solidarity, against the highly individualized modern Western society in a way, since the essence of coping best with fear and danger is building relations with each other as co-inhabitants of the city. Would you consider it a plea of that kind?
Yes. Absolutely yes.