Mobile technology and public space

This post Is The Bedouin Worker Killing The Third Place? got me thinking again about the subject of mobile technology and public space. Years ago, there was thread on Margin Walker about “third places” and the concept of “fourth places.”

To sum up, the “first place” is home, the “second place” is work and the “third place” is, as Adam summed up nicely, “those locales neither home nor work that are critical platforms for socialization.” Places like coffee shops and bars. Adam went on to speculate about the possibility of the emergence of “fourth places” – public, social work places (some more notes on this here).

This sounded great, but what actually seems to have happened is that 3rd places have been hijacked and turned into 4th places. I’ve seen more and more posts about this on various blogs over the past couple years, and have observed it myself here in Portland. It seems like coffee shops are becoming more like libraries – everyone’s got their heads down workin’ on something, everyone’s being very quiet.

The iPod exacerbates the problem. I’ve always been sorta bugged by people with their ears stuck in their disc/walkmans, but portable mp3 players have brought this to a more critical level. What headphones essentially do is turn public space into private space by cutting off or dampening public/shared sound and replacing it with a private soundtrack. Sound is a crucial aspect of a shared space, but what happens when it is no longer shared? It seems to be increasingly unlikely for spontaneous conversations to occur in public when individuals are clearly showing that they are not listening to each other, and are inhabiting a whole separate (private) world.

Cell phones are actually not as bad as either laptops or headphones. The cell phone connects to spaces, and essentially disrupts both – both ends of the call are effected by the location of each end, and any bystanders are effected as well. In other words, the cell phone user is not removed from their surroundings, but changes it and is changed by it. The users of laptops and headphones withdraw.

Bars are relatively unaffected by all of this – they remain predominantly social spaces and I don’t see too many people zoning out to iPods at them. But practically all other public space, from buses to stores to the sidewalk to parks, seem to be consumed.

What efforts are being made to counteract this? In the above link, Piers Fawkes notes a coffee shop that restricts laptop use to certain tables. Victrola in Seattle turns wifi off entirely on weekends. This doesn’t stop the podpeople from zoning out to their headphones, but I suppose it’s an effort. Fawkes also notes a meet-up called Likemind that tends to claim a lot of space from the laptoppers. PDX Occulture tends to do the same thing at our meet-ups.

Are there any other interesting attempts to reclaim public space?

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