The recent passing of Walter Cronkite and the commemoration of the Apollo 11 lunar landing spawned much commentary about how as a culture, we’ve lost not just trusted voice and a collective goal, even the ability to dream. There are many indicators supporting this notion, even some directly related to the design of our cities.
I recall a physics professor describing the theory of entropy. No matter how hard we may try to bring about order, things will always fall into disorder. An evenly manicured lawn will grow into an unkempt shag. A machine in good upkeep will fall into disrepair if left untended. And on.
While twentieth century media grew during the course of that era, it remained strong and focused. It was “ordered”. Print media – newspapers – were the first “gold” standard of reporting. Granted, there were “yellow” tabloids, they quickly gained an unsavory reputation. Publications with good reputations survived and grew. Radio came along, giving “live” presentations from a world away while they happened. Radio stations combining into broadcast networks emerged in order to pool the resources necessary that would allow news from a world away to find its way into our homes. Television came, doing much the same as radio but with images. In the States, there were three major broadcast networks. They took their responsibilities seriously, delivering impartial reporting.
Three networks worked to produce a collective, national consciousness. They had untold influence on society, in many untold ways. A society’s sense of taste is a good example. When I was the Managing Editor of CRIT Magazine, a story crossed my desk by a student who noted the cultural influences of television.
His theory was that we never had “island kitchens” or “sunken living rooms” prior to the Dick van Dyke Show. Here, the stage set was arranged along a line to facilitate television cameras and an in-studio audience sitting on bleachers. The stage set portrayed a house arranged linearly for the audience and cameras to see, with bedrooms opening off either side of a living room, and with a kitchen in the middle. One would never build a real house that way. The front door leading from outside into the living was on a level slightly higher than the living room, so that the audience could see overtop anyone in the living room and focus on who was at the door. Thus came the image of a sunken living room. Likewise, Mary Tyler Moore was forever chopping vegetables in the kitchen while speaking her lines. She had to talk to the audience, not to a wall, and so was born the “island kitchen”. Her on screen portrayal of Mrs. Petrie promoted it to be quite acceptable to peel potatoes as part of dinner party entertainment – a concept previously unacceptable, or even unknown. So, a small number of media outlets wielded tremendous cultural influences.
Initially, three national networks seemed to work well. But they only had so much advertising space to sell to a rapidly expanding economy. Enter cable television, and the law of entropy. More media outlets, more choice, less uniformity of direction. One could easily argue, more quantity, less quality. In a very disparaging description, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song entitled “Fifty Seven Channels and Nothing On”.
Society has gone beyond cable television, or even any other of the twentieth century media models.
Nissan Canada, in wanting to promote its new vehicle, the “cube”, held a contest publicized only on social media – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, its website “hypercube.ca” , and the like. They gave away fifty Nissan cubes during an extended talent contest broadcast only on social media, indicating that they anticipated tremendous target-market exposure from social media.
Traditional, twentieth century media was organized around funneling a large amount of information to a few sources. This new social media takes an enormous amount of information and distributes it in many directions to people directly.
But, culture imitates art.
In the late nineteenth century, there was an accepted growth model of US cities, which became the advent of the original American suburb. It was built around controlled, major transportation – public transit – that delivered people to a specific point, supported by a much smaller scaled “scatter pattern” of individual transportation – walking. Mechanized, mass transit and walking were two very different means of transportation, and urban planning took on a very controlled appearance. Much like news delivered by three major television networks.
Sir Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the “Garden City” describes this urban development model. Here, clearly definable and ordered urban areas are contained and built around mass transit stations; and separated by greenbelts of more rural areas. Enter the law of entropy, and the invention of a “middle ground” of transportation – individual yet mechanized – the automobile. The automobile introduced “point to point” transportation, which allowed the previously rural areas between towns to be developed into what we know these days as ‘sprawl”.
In city planning, while there is a movement back to what’s known as “transit oriented development”, it’s all predicated on removing the automobile as a means of mass transit.
In as much as automobiles are much like suburban buildings – works of art on their own without context – I hope we can keep them around as museum pieces, at least…