Democracy and Design

According to Timothy Egan (writing on his NYT blog), Amazon sold more electronic than hardcopy books during the Christmas season. He goes on to predict that the iPad and other electronic readers will accelerate the closing of brick and mortar bookstores. He writes, “. . . if Denver were to lose Tattered Cover, or Portland lose Powell’s, or Washington, D.C., lose Politics and Prose, it would be like ripping one lung from a healthy body. These stores are cultural centers, shared living rooms; no virtual community on the Web, or even a well-run library, can replace them.”

I agree. I suspect those specific stores will be anomalies, they’ll survive over the medium-term at least as a result of their loyal followings, extensive inventories, and exceptional customer service. The question though is what becomes of the small and medium sized independents who can’t compete on price and don’t have the history or momentum of a Tattered Cover, Powell’s, and Politics and Prose? I hope I’m wrong, but I expect them to go out of business. Does it matter? Is it just creative destruction, a shifting of economic tectonic plates, an inevitable byproduct of free-market capitalism?

Of course, from the perspective of bookstore owners, employees, and loyal customers, it matters. But what about from a socio-political perspective?

Social scientists are telling us what seems intuitive, we’re growing more and more ideologically segregated. I tend to listen to public radio and watch public television, with some Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olberman (in very small doses) mixed in. My right wing friends listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and watch Fox News almost exclusively. Plus, nearly everyone is plugged in to their personal iPods and smartphones making spontaneous conversations with people all but impossible.

Among other things, a vibrant democracy depends on civil discourse, or put more simply, people with differing opinions talking directly to one another. If not at bookstore cafes, or in book discussion groups, or during book reading Q&A’s, when do people truly engage with those who think differently than them? I’ve expressed my opinion before that women are better than men at making time for tea, conversation, and one another. For example, my better half and her friends, “The Clatch”, meet every few months at one of their houses. But I’m only giving them partial credit because they’re all left-of-center libs who think more alike than different.

What becomes of the listening, thinking, communicating, and problem solving skills of people who very rarely engage in civil discourse? For an answer, look at Congress.

Egan’s insight got me thinking about design. Are architects factoring socio-political variables like I’m describing into their designs. And if so, how? How do we design cities or redesign existing ones so that there are inviting public places where diverse people—culturally, economically, ideologically, religiously—are in the same place at the same time?

3 thoughts on “Democracy and Design

  1. Besides architects, city planners and developers can add a lot to the creation of public spaces. Then again, they have to have a willing community and receptive city government to help plan and approve those designs. Some people don’t want to live by those spaces because they’re afraid of people who “loiter”. I would like it- big public squares in the center of downtown – a zocolo like in Mexico or piazza like in Italy. Where people can sit on benches and while the time away- what time we have.

  2. Ron,

    Another timely post. A gathering designed by the Greeks to work against the forces of separation begins north of the 49th next week. Music, theatre, sports, and markets have never failed to bring us together and bring out the best in us.

    To date, Amazon hasn’t invited me to hear Dr. Gawande speak at a book signing. Powell’s and Fireside Books will figure things out…

    Michael

    • Ah, the Winter Olympiad, right. I’ve always been more of a Summer guy, but after living in Norway and learning more about events like biathlon, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been intrigued by Canada’s “Own the Podium” campaign. That’s what I need to keep up with you, more swagger.

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