Design in a small town part 7: Technometrocentrism

Discover magazine has an article by Steven Johnson about Dodgeball - a chimerical tool made up of mapping/wayfinding and social networking technologies.

While it is an interesting little article that brings up the notion that more urban centers better cater to niche groups than rural or small suburban areas (a premise that is hard to argue against), the discussion implicitly follows several assumptions that I find a little problematic.

The gist of my criticism concerns the narrow definition of socializing and the implied socio-economic class and age of those that are assumed to be using Dodgeball. It is clear that the technology described is created for young, semi-affluent, somewhat tech-savvy users.

To go to a bar and hang out and meet "crushes" speaks loads about who this product is intended to serve. Johnson, in his analysis fails to mention the age and socio-economic factors. Johnson instead uses the example of a button store saying that it has a better chance of succeeding in the city due to higher numbers of button freaks. Sure, niche button stores in small towns don't make it but, really, mainstream grocery stores often struggle as well (although, I must say, the rubber stamp/stationary store in my town is not only still around after a couple of years but seems to be doing quite well). It often seems that the reason small town businesses struggle is that younger generations are sold on a mythology that life is better in the city and often that mythology aggrandizes and legitimizes the congregations of big capital and cultural institutions that benefit from being near well-established commercial routes (and those big business). This, of course, comes about as we moved away from small-scale farming towards large-scale agri-business. We are still holding on to the idea that to remain in the boonies means that we need to work on a farm.

I find it immaterial to argue against the reasons that urban areas grow and their importance in general but what I do argue is that we keep pushing the city on children and I think in the future it might be a pretty stupid thing to do. We should look at building all sorts of opportunities and institutions for all ages and socio-economic brackets in rural areas as well.

Johnson remarks:

Dodgeball suggests an intriguing twist on long tail theory. As the technology increasingly allows us to satisfy more eclectic needs, any time those needs require a physical presence —whether it's sipping your cold soup or meeting your crush in a bar —the logic of the long tail will favor urban environments over less densely populated ones. If you'’re downloading the latest album from an obscure Scandinavian doo-wop group, geography doesn'’t matter: It's just as easy to get the bits delivered to you in the middle of Wyoming as it is in the middle of Manhattan. But if you'’re trying to meet up with other fans of Scandinavian doo-wop, you'll have more luck in Manhattan.

Ok. I am surprised this comes from Johnson. I don't think the popular discussions about internet and community were bunk and I would argue that not only does the technology sometimes sublimate for physical proximity (come on, how often would you really go and hang out with Scandinavian doo-wop fans?) it also provides interpersonal distance. And sometimes, if done right, community develops around resources to which people in rural areas connect. Also distance, if you live in the country I would argue, is even perceived differently than in the city. One city block could be 40 miles in the country. I would argue then that people in rural areas are not disadvantaged at all but have an option to remain at a distance and sublimate through technology or can engage by driving *short* distances if they so choose, communicating by phone, or, like me when I feel completely disengaged, visiting cities when I so choose.

To conclude, Johnson's comment about technologies like Dodgeball leading to bigger cities, I think is crazy. As populations age and the technology mutates into something just as meaningful not only for rural and suburban folk but for far older, or younger, or less affluent users it will not draw people to the cities. In fact, it may, with some change in our mythologies revitalize the small town and relieve overburdened populations in the cities.
gregory turner-rahman