How Mobile Devices Could Lead to More City Living

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People pushing sustainability don't tend to be the same types who love our digital-crazed iWorld. And that's a problem because it means they don't push one of the great advantages of dense, energy-efficient cities: urban life integrates far better with mobile devices than does its car-logged suburban cousin.

Take the "distracted driving" debate. Last week, Gizmodo's Joel Johnson asked a sensible question, "Why Isn't There a Better Way to Text While Driving?" His conclusion is that there is just no way to pilot a 2,000 pound vehicle while tapping out a message with your fingers. "I can't envision an optimal solution short of bespoke systems that integrate text messages into heads-up displays, for instance--solutions that cause as many problems as they solve," he wrote.

But I'd question the whole car commute + mobile device paradigm. As you sit on the subway or on the bus or walk, you can tweet, read your RSS feeds, catch up on email, knock out a few pages of a book, or whatever else you might like to do. You can't do that in a car, and I agree with Johnson that there isn't going to be an easy technological fix.

This might seem like a trite bonus of city life. But I think it's more than that. Car time is wasted time, but commuting time doesn't have to be. Look at well-heeled Silicon Valley companies. They offer their employees cushy, WiFi-enabled buses for commuting. That first hour of the day, Apple and Google employees are banging out emails and getting ready for the day, not sitting in traffic carrying out a set of repetitive, low-level, and occasionally dangerous tasks to maneuver their exoskeletons southward.

When we think about the networks that defined modern life in the 20th century -- roads, electrical transmission grids, sewer, water -- it's important to remember that they worked together. The historian David Nye likes to point out that roads and cars may have allowed people to get to the suburbs, but it was the electrical appliances and entertainments those suburban homes contained that made them desirable places to live.

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"If the high energy society forced some farmers off the land, at the same time the networks of roads and electric lines made rural living more attractive, encouraging migration from the city," Nye wrote in Consuming Power. "Using electricity, virtually all places can be lighted or supplied with power equally well... Had only the automobile had been involved, work and commerce would have retained a tighter urban focus."

Similarly, the things we did in our cars reflected the entertainment available. And in the broadcast world, being in your car wasn't so bad: you listened to the radio for fun at home, so the car was kind of a couch on wheels. (See: drive-in movie theaters.) One system helped support the other.

But the latest network to overspread our country -- the wireless electromagnetic one -- is just not fully compatible with driving, at least for human brains. In more economic terms, the opportunity cost of car commuting is going up. You can listen to Howard Stern in a car; you can run your business from a train or bus.

Infrastructure is a viscous social structure, so I have no illusions that a century-old transportation system and its attendant urban forms are suddenly going to disappear. But it's all the networks we layer on top of one another -- information, power, transportation, water -- that help determine the social desirability of a place.

And mobile devices tapping on wireless networks can exert a powerful social influence, as we've all noticed. They could help tip the scales towards denser city living, or at least shorter commutes, for the wired workforce.


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Images:
1. Texas sign. flickr/vikis
2. Lincoln, Nebraska. Library of Congress.
3. Portland, Oregon. National Archives Documerica Collection.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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