When more technology leads to more traffic

Americans tend to assume technology will solve social problems but what if its use in vehicles leads to more traffic?

As Greater Boston creates more jobs and attracts more residents, car commutes have slowed to an excruciating pace. But while economists love congestion pricing — i.e., making people pay for the street space they use and the damage their cars inflict on the environment — it rankles Americans who’ve been raised to view driving alone as a human right. And in cities around the country, the advent of fully driverless cars, which could be many years away, has become an excuse for not building high-capacity transit networks. Autonomous vehicles, The New York Times reported this summer, became a major talking point in anti-transit campaigns in Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville.

Meanwhile, big names in the tech industry are portraying public transit as obsolete or worse. “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told a crowd last year, per an account in Wired. “And there’s, like, a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. OK, great. And that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want when you want.”…

What autonomous vehicles won’t do is make traffic jams disappear. Someday, a driverless car could drop you off at work at 9 a.m. But what if, instead of parking itself in a private garage — which would cost money — it just circles the block until it picks you up at 5 p.m., because we refuse to charge motorists for the use of most streets?…

That’s all the more reason why Greater Boston can’t sit around waiting to see whether and how driverless cars will evolve. We’ll never squeeze enough cars into crowded spaces to get people where they need to go. In the end, no artificial-intelligence algorithm can change the laws of physics. Plan accordingly.

Adding more vehicles to the road leads to more traffic, even if it is easier to obtain those vehicles or the vehicles can drive themselves.

While this article calls for a long-term look at whether cities like Boston should prioritize mass transit or vehicles (and then act accordingly through means like congestion pricing or spending more money on mass transit), this is part of a bigger conversation: what if Americans will do whatever possible to keep up their ability to drive/ride in cars from their single-family homes to where they want to go? Even putting more money in mass transit can only do so much if density does not increase. And in a city like Boston that is already pretty dense, that could lead to some tough conversations about more affordable housing closer to jobs rather than relying on transportation to even out differences in where people live.

The social connectedness of DuPage County, IL to other locations

Data from Facebook in 2016 allowed researchers to look at where users’ friends are located. Here is the data from DuPage County, Illinois:

SocialConnectednessDuPageCountyIL

The researchers argue distance matter and there are some other broad patterns in the data:

Coastal cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles do exhibit close ties to one another, showing that people in counties with similar incomes, education levels and voting patterns are more likely to be linked. But nationwide, the effect of such similarity is small. And the pull of regionalism is strong even for major cities. Brooklynites are still more likely to know someone on Facebook near Albany or Binghamton than in the Bay Area…

State lines are powerful boundaries in binding nearby places. For many counties, as the maps illustrate, the likelihood of friendship drops off sharply at state borders. And counties within a given state tend to be strongly connected to one another. This is particularly striking in Michigan, where counties near the Indiana and Ohio state line are more closely tied to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than to out-of-state counties closer by…

History is another significant force in shaping these networks. Decades-old migration patterns can help explain why some distant counties are disproportionately connected today. Northern cities like Chicago and Milwaukee still retain close ties to Southern counties along the Mississippi River, where African-American workers who were part of the Great Migration starting a century ago left communities for industrial jobs in the North…

In other parts of the country, physical geography forms a kind of social barrier. Friendship links from Belmont County, Ohio, extend east but don’t cross the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania or the Blue Ridge range in Virginia. In Scott County, Ark., friendships do cross state lines, into Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. But they don’t cross the Mississippi River to the east. In Nassau County, N.Y., the likelihood of friendship links declines steeply off Long Island…

Other county outliers in the data can be explained by distinct roles some communities serve: Onslow County, N.C., which is connected to much of the country, is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

Based on the map of DuPage County plus discussion of the broad patterns, here is what I notice about the Chicago collar county:

1. More ties in the other suburban counties and then within Illinois.

2. There are a number of Midwestern ties spread across adjacent states.

3. DuPage County has more distant ties to a few other places. I’m guessing Florida and Arizona show up as retirement destinations. Both Summit County, Colorado and Teton County, Wyoming show up – are these popular vacation destinations? (Both of these counties have relatively small populations.)

4. There are not many ties to the Northeast though other metropolitan areas show ranging from Seattle to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Nashville.

On the whole, DuPage County is pretty wealthy and I would guess fairly mobile. The Facebook connections by location might support that though there are still many Chicago area and Illinois relationships.

The (in)action that results when 54% of teenagers are worried about spending too much time on their smartphones

A new Pew report suggests just over half of teenagers are concerned about smartphone use:

Teens hold mixed opinions about whether they spend too much time in front of screens …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The initial headline finding about the 54% could be interpreted two ways:

  1. Only 54% of teenagers are worried about this???
  2. This is great that at least half of teenagers are worried about this!!!

But, the additional detail in the survey responses suggests the devil is in the details:

Interestingly, there is little association between teens’ views of how much time they spend on various screens and whether or not they have tried to limit their time on those devices. For instance, 53% of teens who say they spend too much time on their cellphone have ever cut back the amount of time they spend on their phone. That is nearly identical to the 55% of teens who say they spend about the right amount or too little time on their phone who have tried to limit their mobile usage.

In other words, a slight majority of teenagers are worried about their smartphone use but roughly half of that group has “ever” tried to limit their use. Their concerns are not necessarily translating into action. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Smartphone use is just so ubiquitous. Cutting back or not using the smartphone is tantamount to not being part of the 21st century.
  2. Peer pressure. If they do not participate as much, their social world passes them by.
  3. They do not have good models to look to as to how to limit their use. (This is where the data from the same report on parental concerns is interesting.)

This seems to be consistent with some of the work my colleagues and I have done regarding social network site use. Users may be able to articulate problems they face using social media and smartphones but very few of them opt out of the realm altogether because there are clear benefits to continuing.

How exactly teenagers and other smartphone and social media users will learn to employ what they would consider appropriate boundaries in using these devices and platforms is an open question.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

Living the suburban teenage life through local Twitter

In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans said the suburban community was “endsville” for teenagers. But, suburban teenagers today can take to Twitter:

A decade ago, if you were a bored teen looking to post about suburban life, relationship problems, Starbucks, or fleeting thoughts like, “The holidays are approaching and being single sucksssss lol,” you might turn to Facebook. But of course, today’s teens don’t use Facebook. Instead, they take their most #relatable thoughts to Twitter, often racking up hundreds of thousands of retweets and faves in the process.

Twitter is full of tribes: gay Twitter, stan Twitter, politics Twitter, media Twitter, weird Twitter. The mostly white, well-adjusted suburban teens who share stale platitudes of the kind that some internet users might call “basic” are part of a tribe known as local Twitter.

Though most users do mainly follow people from their hometowns, local Twitter has more to do with what you tweet than where you live. The typical local Twitter user is a teen who is “in their own bubble of simple life pleasures and desires,” doesn’t live their entire life online, “and uses Twitter to connect to their real-life friends like they used to do on Facebook,” explains Raeequaza, a 22-year-old in New York…

Local Twitter teens are townie-like in the sense that their world mostly revolves around life in their hometown, though most will probably grow up and eventually leave for college. Some older local Twitter users might actually be townies, but the majority of local Twitter—particularly the part that has the power to make local tweets go viral—is made up of teens.

The ongoing plight of American teenagers in suburbia continues: they feel cut off from the exciting outside world, the suburbs are dull and do not feature spaces for teenagers, the suburbs represent conformity and middle-of-the-road values, and daily life revolves around school and family. Compared to Gans’ time where being able to drive represented freedom for teenagers, now teenagers can escape the suburbs (or live the ironic suburban life) through Internet and social media connections that theoretically can connect them to any person or place in the world.

Two additional quick thoughts:

  1. How many of these local Twitter users will end up living in suburbs as adults?
  2. Are the local Twitter users more perceptive about their local surroundings or are they just willing to tweet about their observations?

10 South Canal Street in Chicago contains a building part of NSA Internet surveillance

The Intercept claims to have identified 8 major U.S. cities that have a building where the NSA spies on telecommunications through AT&T facilities. Here is the photo from the story of 10 South Canal Street in Chicago as well some of the background of the building:

https://theintercept.com/2018/06/25/att-internet-nsa-spy-hubs/

10 South Canal Street, Chicago, IL

 

Like many other major telecommunications hubs built during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicago AT&T building was designed amid the Cold War to withstand a nuclear attack. The 538-foot skyscraper, located in the West Loop Gate area of the city, was completed in 1971. There are windows at both the top and bottom of the vast concrete structure, but 18 of its 28 floors are windowless…

 

10 South Canal Street originally contained a million-gallon oil tank, turbine generators, and a water well, so that it could continue to function for more than two weeks without electricity or water from the city, according to Illinois broadcaster WBEZ. The building is “anchored in bedrock, which helps support the weight of the equipment inside, and gives it extra resistance to bomb blasts or earthquakes,” WBEZ reported.

Today, the facility contains six large V-16 yellow Caterpillar generators that can provide backup electricity in the event of a power failure, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Inside the skyscraper, AT&T stores some 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to run the generators for 40 days.

NSA and AT&T maps point to the Chicago facility as being one of the “peering” hubs, which process internet traffic as part of the NSA surveillance program code-named FAIRVIEW. Philip Long, who was employed by AT&T for more than two decades as a technician servicing its networks, confirmed that the Chicago site was one of eight primary AT&T “Service Node Routing Complexes,” or SNRCs, in the U.S. NSA documents explicitly describe tapping into flows of data at all eight of these sites.

It is common that cities have buildings that may be hiding something, ranging from telecommunication structures to power substations to fake facades to hide subways or rail lines. But, I assume very few people would guess that a rather normal looking city structure could be part of an Internet surveillance program. I’m not sure what people would do with this knowledge. Protest outside? Give it a wide berth by not traveling near it? Chalk it up as a local oddity and then move on with normal life?

Whether tech companies and their workers actually do better in and prefer cities

A recent Chicago Tribune article echoed a theme I have now seen numerous times: companies must have downtown campuses to compete for tech workers.

To lure data scientists and other tech workers, companies in industries from fast food to insurance have opened outposts in the heart of the city, where tech employees want to work. Having hip, downtown spaces has proved worth the extra cost to suburban companies, even as rents have increased…

When suburban companies first started catching on to millennials’ desire to live and work in the city, managers had a new culture to learn, Reaumond said. Employees in the downtown innovation hubs didn’t want to be chained to desks 10 hours a day…

Tech-focused downtown spaces feel different than their suburban counterparts, and that’s how it should be, Arity President Gary Hallgren said. Allstate’s Northbrook campus has a barber, a pharmacy and a doctor, but the Merchandise Mart space isn’t trying to be a campus, Hallgren said. Its goals and culture are different, and the space is too. Arity’s office has a pingpong table and the same fizzy water dispenser featured in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” It hosts meetups that draw tech workers from outside the company.

The underlying premise in these articles is that tech workers prefer to be in urban settings. However, I do not believe I have seen much data that measures this claim. When Americans as a whole are asked where they prefer to live, they tend to say either small towns or suburbs.

If tech workers do tend to prefer urban settings, is this due to the work itself actually going better in cities (higher productivity, more innovation, more efficiency, etc.) or other factors? For example, these stories often do not distinguish between the work activities of these firms and the age (younger) and generation (millennials) of the featured tech workers. Will the tech workers of today be the suburban parents of ten years from now? There is evidence that cities are innovation centers (see the scaling effects of patent production chronicled in Geoffrey West’s Scale) yet tech innovation is possible in the suburban office park (see the Route 128 area outside Boston, Silicon Valley around San Jose, and Bell Labs research centers in suburbia after World War Two).

And while this is often pitted as an either/or issue – tech firms must be in the big cities or must be elsewhere – I suspect there could be some benefits to each as well as some mixing of locations.