I was watching Citizen Jane last night (a documentary on everyone’s favorite urbanist, Jane Jacobs), and thinking through the parallels between urban planning philosophies and internet ecosystems. In many ways, the tensions between the open web and the platform web perfectly reflect the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses theories of urban planning.
Jacobs’s perspective was that urban life happens at street level, and that access to a wide range of other people on the sidewalks of a city allow for an emergent culture that is unpredictable and messy, vital and communal. On the other hand, Moses’s idea of progress involved sweeping away the mess and unpredictability, creating regimented highways and high-rises that would allow for urban life to be planned, and therefore improved. In many ways the contrast is also about scale — for Jacobs, the city should work at the scale and speed of the pedestrian, whereas Moses believed a modern city should reflect the scale and speed of the automobile.
Today, most urban planning theory has evolved to reflect Jacobs’s thinking, as Moses’s initiatives failed on many levels — far from ushering in the utopia he imagined, his housing projects became even worse than the slums he sought to remedy, and his highways destroyed neighborhoods and disenfranchised those without automobiles.
The current conversations about what our digital ecosystems should be and who they are for almost exactly mirrors these tensions. This is unsurprising, as we live in our digital spaces just as much as we do in our physical ones. The open web is much like emergent, unplanned cities — it happens at the scale of the individual, it allows for unexpected creativity, it gives agency to anyone (well, anyone with sufficient technical knowledge) to shape their own spaces. On the other hand, the platforms that now dominate much of the web experience are more evocative of Moses’s planned cities—they often occur at the scale of the corporation, and have rigid, predictable constraints for how individuals can behave and express themselves. Furthermore, as we see with much of the recent controversy around how Facebook is handling political speech, utopian ideals about free speech can play out in deeply problematic ways in practice, much like Moses’s progressivism ended up disempowering the people he wanted to help. (Paternalism, it turns out, may not be the best approach to serving people’s needs.)
But the platform web does have its advantages. It allows for greater ease of use and provides more powerful capabilities for people to find each other. Unlike in a physical space, it can be hard to meet your “neighbors” on the internet, and discoverability is a necessary layer. The network advantage is strong, the access to publishing is more evenly distributed. But in many cases, the constraints, the scale, and the predictability make these platforms restrictive, less human-scale, and less open to new kinds of creative expression. They make for a boring internet. As Jane Jacobs said, “If you can understand a city, then that city is dead.”
So what might a blended approach look like? How might we keep some of those affordances but bring back the agency, humanism, and creativity of the open web? I believe that it’s possible to thoughtfully layer the tools at our disposal in a way that empowers the people who use them, enabling more vibrant, unpredictable neighborhoods in our digital spaces. We need only look back to Jane Jacobs to see the path forward towards a more robust, expressive, and vital web.