One of the challenges in achieving an integration of thinking between hackers and urbanists is the rate of change online. Will the massive experimentation currently underway on the internet continue at a pace, or settle down as norms are established and protocols emerge? Perhaps the same protocols that make it possible for people to live in cities. We sometimes call them “manners” or “cultural norms” and we know when they are being broken. Equally so, we call them street networks and we generally understand now to navigate them. We don’t all have to follow manners and streets but they offer a guide to behaviour and they make the difference between structured living and chaos.
How social networking protocols are established online will, in return, influence the social dynamic of future city living, perhaps as much as the efforts of planners and architects to structure social encounter by virtue of where we place things (buildings) and how we connect them together (streets, utilities and transport networks). This is because the people using online space and the people using urban space are the same people.
Online change is happening quickly yet cities evolved gradually. Up until 150 years ago there was, arguably, one kind of city: the grid city of trade. Social as well as economic trade. Edge to centre connections to create relationships between global and local movement, thus bringing local inhabitants into co-present relations with visitors from out of town.
Then, at the beginning of the 20th Century, came the Garden Cities, dividing and fragmenting the dense urbanism and diluting the transactions. After this came Modernism and a massive, experimental zoo of urban forms which, like the Garden Cities, divided, fragmented and diluted, this time with highways as well as landscapes.
Along the way, vitality was lost. Serendipity was lost. Cities underperformed. The common, slowly evolving historic thread was broken. Social networks in physical space were damaged to the point where some urban planning projects removed them almost entirely – people didn’t know their neighbours and, stuck in suburban sprawl without a car, had nowhere to go to make new connections. We have gone from a rich, mannered, cultured, protocoled world of serendipitous social relations to one where they no longer exist.
And then came online, providing a new source of social connectivity. However, the drawback has been that, at least at first, the search and discover nature of online social networking was poor – no easier to make new friends than to find them in the dark corners and elevated walkways of a failed public housing project.
Yet efforts continue to improve online encounter. Massive, experimental efforts that beg the question: is the internet doing for social networking (ie improving it) the reverse of what cities have done for relations in physical space (ie to damage them) Starting with febrile experimentation and underperformance, is online evolving towards consistency, protocols, intelligibility? And, most importantly, towards seredipity: the spark of humanity.