TCS Daily

Bringing the Public Back to Public Spaces

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Almost three years ago, I wrote about something I called the comfy-chair revolution, in which businesses seemed to be working harder to make their public spaces friendly to what would, in an earlier age, have been seen as loiterers. (Here's a related column that I wrote for the Wall Street Journal at about the same time.) That trend has proceeded apace, with many retail, and other, spaces becoming far more accommodating -- though that accommodation has claimed its victims here and there, and although there have been some reports of a counter-revolution in places.

As a believer in markets, I think that this trend will eventually find an equilibrium point, and as someone who's noticed the direction of technological change at the moment, I think that equilibrium point will be a lot closer to where things were in the 18th Century than to where they were just a few years ago. And this will be on account of both pushes and pulls.

The "push" comes from the office environment. If you're reading this column, you have almost certainly also read Dilbert, and I'm tempted to simply cite the comic strip and say "case closed." But there's more to it than that.

Yes, the office environment can be unpleasant, and the commute can be nasty and time-consuming (and expensive), too. That's one reason people like to work at home. But working at home has its own problems, since it can be hard to maintain the work/non-work boundaries. And who wants to meet with clients in your den?

On the other hand, offices are expensive. I've noticed a lot of small business people in my area giving up their offices, and having meetings in public places -- Starbucks, Borders, the Public Library, and so on. In fact, a real estate agent recently told me that the small-office commercial real estate market is actually suffering as a result of so many people making this kind of move.

The "push" comes from people wanting to get out of offices. But the "pull" comes from the technology that makes it possible, and from the desire of businesses to cash in. Personal tech like laptops, PDAs, cellphones, etc., coupled with wi-fi and other technologies that allow Internet access from all over, means that you don't need to be at the office nearly as much anymore.

If a home is, in Le Corbusier's words, a "machine for living," then an office is a "machine for working." But nowadays, the machinery is looking a bit obsolescent. The traditional office took shape in the 19th Century, and the shape it took was in no small part the result of technology: the need for people to be close to each other, and to services like telegraphs, telephones, messengers and (later) faxes, copy machines, and computers.

You can pretty much carry all that stuff with you now. And people are doing it.

That means that there's a market for places that cater to them. Right now we're seeing the early phase of that, with amenities that focus on wi-fi and lattes. In time, we're likely to see a lot more than that. A recent article in Salon by Linda Baker notes that many urban-design types are looking beyond connectivity to inter-connectivity, as in this example from Athens, Georgia:

"Like a street or a building, WAG zone access points actually inhabit part of the physical infrastructure, orienting the Cloud user to specific resources within the community. 'A huge part of this is connecting up the information with the location and making it place-and-time relevant,' Shamp said. 'To experience it, you actually have to be in downtown Athens.' Another site-specific application -- customized for the social life of a student -- is Friend Finder, a Cloud service designed by University of Georgia art, business and music students. 'I can come into downtown Athens with a PDA, send a text message that I'm going to be in Blue Sky Coffee for two hours, then turn it off and put it in my pocket,' explains Shamp. 'Then when one of my buddies comes into downtown, he can use the WAG zone to find out where his friends are.'

Different target groups will get different amenities (business users might like readily available Internet printing, for example, more than friend-finding -- or maybe not). But my guess is that the end result will look more like the 18th century coffeehouses, in which so many of that day conducted their business, than like the office towers where the 20th century's men in the gray flannel suits used to go. This is part of what seems to me to be a larger phenomenon: 19th and 20th century technology seemed to favor aggregation, uniformity, and large size. 21st century technology seems to favor diversity, variety, and small size -- along with a much higher degree of interconnection. From politics to work, I think there are quite a few revolutions along these lines yet to come, and I think they'll go well beyond comfy chairs.


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