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Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

Here’s an interesting dilemma about the Internet:

Inventions are about the idea and the sale – someone makes a new product or process and wants two things, recognition for the idea but also some profit from the sale of the idea.

On the Internet, in its ideal form at least, an idea is meant to be freely shared – blogs represent hours and hours of (mostly) free published content, open source software abounds, MP3s make their way onto some sharing site or another, and memes are effective because they are (presumably) good enough ideas to send around.

What about the sale of Internet-based ideas?

So far the results have been mixed.  Apple’s iTunes seems to flourish, but that’s less an idea than it is a different type of product, a commodity to be sold.  Newspapers have been discussing paid subscriptions and what those might look like, and some (WSJ) have already done it, but again the line between commodity and pure idea are not clear.  Some blogs and podcasts require paid subscription, but more often they rely on advertising revenue or other sponsorship.  Wikipedia works in part because it is completely free, relying only on (hefty) donations to keep the operation going.  Selling something (or rather, not a thing, but an idea) online may be seen as selling out.

Where it really shows up, it seems, is in the purchase of websites or other content by a large (usually corporate) entity.  On the one hand, an Internet entrepreneur wants their idea to pay off.  On the other hand, deals like the AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post happen, and onlookers squirm.  What are they really paying for?  How will that affect what’s posted?  (In the case of HuffPo, the general theme of the content is more or less already expected, but the question of proper influence arises nonetheless.)

We seem ambivalent about payment transactions for ideas in what is supposed to be a free and open forum.  But the longer-lived culture of entrepreneurial invention reminds us that we can’t pay the rent with ideas alone.  Can Internet culture support two forms of currency?  Does corporate sponsorship or pay-to-play content de-legitimize an idea (or its source) in an online forum?

(That’ll be 63 cents, please!  PayPal accepted.)

Update:  I was thinking this morning (Saturday) that this post is a bit of a ramble.  And I should have incorporated a piece on Net Neutrality, perhaps a tangent but certainly directly related to the presence of for-profit corporations (or any other entity with an agenda) on the Internet.

And perhaps one important part of online ideas vs. inventions for sale is the concept of the commons versus a scarce material resource.  Unlike the grassy field example, however, the online commons is not at all diminished by more people accessing or making a copy of the information; Wikimedia Commons is an example of this.  You can point out that digital information tends to degrade with more copies, but this is not a function of more people accessing it, only it being copied more times.  And of course server space and electricity are the scarce material resources on which the information depends, but the trend has been more and cheaper space, not less.

Thus it is more difficult to enforce ownership over an idea or online object, because unlike a produced item it can be copied and/or transformed with almost no effort.  While it is good form on the Internet to credit your original source, as it is in other realms, it does not necessarily restrict access from that source, nor does someone else really profit from it – the copier may, in fact, be showing tribute to the original idea by spreading it to more people.

Anyway, there’s a lot to sort out for this thought to really go anywhere, but there are a couple more pieces to consider.

I’m sidestepping planning for the moment to make some brief comments about Girl Talk’s album All Day.  (If you haven’t heard and are feeling up to the challenge, download here for free.)

Driving back from Ohio, I decided to use one of the (seven) hours to listen to the album.  I had tried before, but was pretty much overwhelmed by the first three minutes of the first track.  The second time, however, I made it through, and I’m listening to it again now in fact.

Here’s my take on the album, or more specifically its style of hyper-mashup:  it’s not so much music, a series of songs, as it is a 71-minute manipulation of the brain to experience music.

What I mean by this is, that it’s not original music in the traditional sense of composition and performance, it’s a collage, like other mashups.  What stood out to me in this work, however, was that unlike other mashups (which generally combine two songs, or take brief samples from a couple songs and other places) the entire thing is just a series of brief references mixed to sound like a comprehensible song.  This creation of “meta art” seems to be a more and more common form of work on the Internet, with mashup videos of all the times Don Draper says “what?” in Mad Men (sorry, it’s not up anymore) or the massive infographics of every kind of beer or the Batmobile.  The skill lies not in inventing something out of nothing, but clever manipulation of found materials, so to speak, by wading through a massive pile of already-known objects of pop culture.

For it to make sense, then, we (the reader, listener, viewer) must already know most, if not all, of its constituent parts – otherwise it’s just noise.  This is particularly true of All Day; if you don’t know most of the songs, it’s almost unlistenable because it just jumps from one short clip to another, chaotic with multiple layers of different genres, sometimes three or four songs at a time.  We enjoy it only because we’ve really heard it all before.

What’s going on, it seems, is that we may like listening to it because of its technical quality, the way seemingly incongruous songs fit together, etc., but we’re really enjoying it because it’s triggering a constant sense of nostalgia in our brains, hearing those songs we recognize instantly and probably know by heart.  Each small sample is enough to make us hear the rest of the song in our heads, making the experience of listening not one that engages with the song actually playing, but one in which we actively play all the songs over ourselves in memory.  The album is basically a rapid series of memory-triggers, and makes no sense unless we already have those memories (songs) stored away for easy reference.

That isn’t to say it’s not a fun experience, even if you don’t know all the songs (I certainly don’t).  It’s just a notably different experience that says something about where culture is going.  Now that it’s technically possible, it’s also artistically acceptable to build something out of a mass of existing data – not simply through influences or lyric references or homages, as has been done for centuries, but by actually constructing a new work solely with the pieces of others, on a scale which would have been imprecise and extremely time-consuming using non-digital methods.

It feeds into some larger questions I have about the Internet and where we’re headed:  Are we really stretching our minds to take in and process more information?  Will we eventually find single-stream information too boring?  What are we giving up in return?  Are we losing the ability to think deeply about one thing because we are pushed to constantly think about so many things?  What are the consequences of our speeding up and layering and augmenting of reality, the real-life equivalent of constant footnotes and marginalia and cross-references?

And, of course, there is a Girl Talk infographic explaining the whole thing.  Actually, there’s one from Fast Company, Wired, and a real-time sampling list from Travis McLeskey.  Not to mention all the people who have populated the album’s Wikipedia page.  Meta squared, if you will.

For a similarly interesting pop song mashup, check this out (via Urlesque).

I need to reflect on this later, but Planetizen and Discovering Urbanism have both recently called into question the need for planning, as compared to the organic, decentralized system of Emergence.

After reading Daniel’s post, I was curious to read Steven Johnson’s book Emergence (2002).  And just today, Planetizen relayed a Slate article on the same theme.  Both the book and the Slate piece argue that cities are formed by the aggregate of a million decisions of residents, companies, and other stakeholders – not by comprehensive planning (understood to be the attempt to direct and control growth or development with certain goals in mind).

With the increased recognition of urban planning as important in cities and regions, there seems to be a parallel trend of anti-planning sentiment in favor of emergence.

Whence this criticism?  Whither planning?


Update:  I responded in a comment, but realized that this blog theme does an excellent job of burying comments in tiny text that no one will find.  I’m copying my response to Daniel’s point that the Slate article seems to conflate top-down central planning with all other types of planning, ignoring the participatory and community-building aspects of contemporary planning practice.  See Comments for original post.

The anti-planning (or I should probably say pro-market or pro-emergence) arguments tend to set up the dichotomy between absolute planning and free-market principles, while at the same time talking about “putting some mechanisms into place” regarding land use and economic functions and the like. So… is planning good AND bad, then?

If they’re reacting against Soviet-era planning, it’s certainly not fair to lump anything we do in the U.S. into that category. Even if that much centralized authority is effective in making change, there is no legal framework OR popular desire to engage in that project in America. Their argument against central planning, as you said, is valid, given the value we place on democratic principles and on the basic equality and rights of all people. But to push their argument further, their responsibility is to clarify what *type* of planning they’re talking about, and not to accidentally (or deliberately) conflate those ideas.

It seems to be, in part, a case of people getting really excited about 1) nature and/or 2) the Internet, and trying to relate those metaphors to the rest of modern life. The problem with using either is that everything humans do has become artificial, so it’s hard to sort out “natural” behavior; and of course, that the underlying structure of the Internet allows the apparent front-end chaos to thrive.

I think it’s also a case with some – but not all – proponents of incrementalism or free market or emergent systems, of setting up “planning” as a straw man to knock down, then espouse their principles. The confusion between city planning and central/master planning, as we generally understand those terms, may be a deliberate political move. I’m opening myself up to further criticism by making that generalization, so I stress that it’s not always ideological manipulation! But for some, it decidedly is. Whenever you move from observation of a system, to declarations about how it or other systems SHOULD behave, you’re out of the realm of science, and into philosophical or policy questions.

Omigosh.

William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte.

This will require further investigation, but I think I found one of my new favorite people.  A few words on the man, from a collection of his work, The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham UP, 2000):

“William H. Whyte, known to friends and family as Holly, was a prophet of common sense.  He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw.  He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it.  He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that.  Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly Whyte gave them facts.” (Foreword by Paul Goldberger)

“Whyte was an astute observer who reported how people actually behaved (rather than how we assume they behave).  A charitable critic with a real moral bent, Whyte was cheerful by nature, ever the optimist; even if his observations about postwar American life were laced with warnings, some of them quite ominous, Whyte was always thinking positively, and he was clearly a patriot.  His affable personality and the agreeableness of his prose permitted him to go further in his social criticism than was typical in the popular media of the day, and people listened.” (Introduction by Albert LaFarge)

I just picked up this book and will have to reflect more on his work at a later time – partly because I should actually be reflecting on it in my Physical Planning project.  But just browsing through “The Class of ’49” from The Organization Man, I realized that he describes an institutionalization of young male America as a result of military service in World War II – a desire for structure, hierarchical management, and stability in a large organization (e.g. AT&T) rather than the messy riskiness, and sometimes inefficiency, of small businesses.  This is interesting for so many reasons:

  • Profound influence of the experience of war, particularly of soldiers, on the structure of society
  • Changing social organizations and ideals and desires and goals
  • The (possible) fundamental shift in thought post WW2 in American culture
  • The desire for stability, commoditization, sameness, as a response to war
  • The rise of what we are currently dealing with, and its potential decline and/or change (that is, big corporations; widespread suburban developments; a culture of sameness; hierarchical vs. collaborative structures; dependence on certain resources; what it means to be a worker and contribute to society)
  • The physical/spatial implications of these values, and how we interact with where we live

Something to throw out there:  the Internet (with accompanying ideas of digital information, non-hierarchical or spatially-based networks, networks in general, new communication patterns, more fluid identities, information overload, etc etc etc) is on par with World War 2 in terms of its level of influence on our culture and society – how we value and organize our world and each other.

Whereas postwar American culture was built on the desire to rebuild a better society out of mass cultural hardship and trauma,

Contemporary culture is being built by our attempts to deal with a torrent of information we’ve created … but major ideological/value conflicts also need to fit in there somewhere … hmm.

Holy crap.

I need to think about this a lot more.

I’m so intellectually flipping out right now.