Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Palaces for the People (audio)

The phrase "palaces for the people" comes from Andrew Carnegie. A prolific philanthropist, Carnegie helped to fund more than 2,500 libraries around the world.

Initially excited by a systematic, long form look into an issue I care deeply about, I picked up this book after hearing Eric Klinenberg talk on 99% Invisible. Reading the book, I found the library-related discussions to be most coherent, and also found many disparate nuggets that piqued my curiosity, including many social-minded projects I hadn't heard of before. But overall, the book's scope is so huge that I think the author failed to conjure a coherent narrative. In addition, I often found the tone overly didactic and pandering to a particular audience.

The author draws on a wide variety of authors I've recently become familiar with:

  • Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone): social capital has been declining since the 1960s.
  • Charles Murray (Coming Apart)
  • Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
  • James Scott (Seeing Like a State): high modernism and optimization is at odds with social infrastructure.
  • Sherry Turkle (Alone Together): we don't talk to each other anymore because of digital devices.

Surprising facts about libraries:

  • Usage is increasing in the US.
  • Circulation is led by Seattle in annual book circulation per capita.
  • Along with Military and First Responders, the most respected institutions.
  • Used in a wide variety of ways, far more than just lending books (eg. virtual senior bowling leagues -- take that Robert Putnam)

My favorite part included examples of hard infrastructure (eg. electric grid, sewer system, transit networks, levies) doubling as social infrastructure. A levy can double as a walking path. An example is a new project in Manhattan called the Big U, where flood walls will double as gallery and public space. This is just like the Richmond Dyke, an embankment which prevents the suburb where I grew up from flooding. Richmond is below sea level, and situated in a river delta. Also, old physical infrastructure can be repurposed to be more social. This often happens with waterfront renovation projects. For example, when the Embarcadero highway fell in the 1989 SF quake, it was converted into a much better waterfront. In Seattle and Vancouver, viaducts along the water are being replaced with much more human-friendly infrastructure. Tons of examples of former rail lines being turned into vibrant public spaces:

  • New Orleans: Lafitte Greenway
  • Atlanta: Green Belt
  • Seattle: Burke Gilman Trail
  • Portland: Springwater Corridor

Speaking of public spaces, Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons were also mentioned. This gave me an excuse to look a bit deeper. Like Carnegie, who left a legacy in libraries, the Olmsteads left their legacy in America's parks. Olmstead Sr. is considered the father of landscape architecture, and his son FLO Jr. designed Olmstead Point in Yosemite, one of my favorite places. As it turns out, the Olmstead brothers planned most of Seattle's parks.

Also interesting discussion about public baths and their role as social infrastructure. In Finland the public pools help build social cohesion. Swimming in the same place means you accept other bodies. They are used to meet neighbors, and even complain to elected representatives. Of course, Finland is quite demographically homogenous. In contrast, the US had many pool related battles between blacks and whites during the Civil Rights era.

Among the painful parts of the book hand wringing about the veracity of the Broken Window Theory. But the conclusion is what really put a nail in the coffin. Suddenly all of the memes are in full force: Trump is Evil Incarnate. Tech is to blame for all of the Bay Area's problems. Facebook is The Absolute Worst. It's not that I disagree with these sentiments, but stop flogging a dead horse. (Meta: one of the reasons I love books is that they are timeless, and less about knee-jerk reactions to current events. This is less true for new releases that have not passed the test of time.)

The author defines Social Infrastructure as "the physical conditions that determine if social capital can flourish". Immediately my mind went to the digital equivalent: Social Digital Infrastructure. "the physical conditions that determine if social capital can flourish".

Fundamentally, this book cements an idea I've been wrangling with. Over the last little while, I've attempted a number of projects that try to improve social discourse online. That they have all failed does not necessarily mean that there is no hope for systems that try to foster social infrastructure digitally, but I now believe that my efforts were somewhat misguided. I strongly agree with this sentiment expressed by the author:

Local face to face interactions are the building blocks of all public life.

I would have liked to read more about examples of digital infrastructure intended to impact the real world. Also, why does Meetup have such awful attrition? I propose a law:

Law of Meetup Attrition: the number of people that show up to an event is 1/3 the number of people that sign up for it. The number of people that sign up to an event is 1/30 the number of people in the meetup group.

Successful unmentioned examples of social digital infrastructure that come to mind are the Little Free Library project, and PEPS in Seattle.