Houston as the example of what decentralized pluralism and social trust could look like?

When David Brooks looks at the need for social trust in the United States, one example he looks to is the city of Houston:

Photo by Nick Bee on Pexels.com

Can America in the 2020s turn itself around the way the America of the 1890s, or the Britain of the 1830s, did? Can we create a civic renaissance and a legislative revolution? I’m not so sure. If you think we’re going back to the America that used to be—with a single cohesive mainstream culture; with an agile, trusted central government; with a few mainstream media voices that police a coherent national conversation; with an interconnected, respected leadership class; with a set of dominant moral values based on mainline Protestantism or some other single ethic—then you’re not being realistic. I see no scenario in which we return to being the nation we were in 1965, with a cohesive national ethos, a clear national establishment, trusted central institutions, and a pop-culture landscape in which people overwhelmingly watch the same shows and talked about the same things. We’re too beaten up for that. The age of distrust has smashed the converging America and the converging globe—that great dream of the 1990s—and has left us with the reality that our only plausible future is decentralized pluralism.

A model for that can be found in, of all places, Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in America. At least 145 languages are spoken in the metro area. It has no real central downtown district, but, rather, a wide diversity of scattered downtowns and scattered economic and cultural hubs. As you drive across town you feel like you’re successively in Lagos, Hanoi, Mumbai, White Plains, Beverly Hills, Des Moines, and Mexico City. In each of these cultural zones, these islands of trust, there is a sense of vibrant activity and experimentation—and across the whole city there is an atmosphere of openness, and goodwill, and the American tendency to act and organize that Hofstadter discussed in The Age of Reform.

Not every place can or would want to be Houston—its cityscape is ugly, and I’m not a fan of its too-libertarian zoning policies—but in that rambling, scattershot city I see an image of how a hyper-diverse, and more trusting, American future might work.

The key to making decentralized pluralism work still comes down to one question: Do we have the energy to build new organizations that address our problems, the way the Brits did in the 1830s and Americans did in the 1890s? Personal trust can exist informally between two friends who rely on each other, but social trust is built within organizations in which people are bound together to do joint work, in which they struggle together long enough for trust to gradually develop, in which they develop shared understandings of what is expected of each other, in which they are enmeshed in rules and standards of behavior that keep them trustworthy when their commitments might otherwise falter. Social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate. Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.

Houston is a growing city – now the fourth largest American city – and is a unique city in the United States. Brooks notes three features above: sprawl and a decentralized landscape, a lack of zoning policies, and diverse residents.

A fourth factor could be worth adding that might undercut Brooks’ example. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Kevin Smiley examined people-oriented cities and market-oriented cities. One of their case studies is Houston, a paradigmatic market-oriented city. Heavily influenced by the oil industry, the city has prioritized business over people. Can such a setting foster more social trust? If so, would it primarily be based on economic interdependence and would that be enough to overcome the problems Brooks suggests Americans face? If not, how can places combat the tendencies for current systems to pit interested parties against each other?

Furthermore, it would be worth hearing more how “islands of trust” can cooperate together to pursue projects for the good of the whole city. In a decentralized landscape, wealthier private residents may have what they want – access to a home and yard, for example – but it is less clear what kinds of institutions successfully bring people together over an expansive metropolitan region. A limited number of regions have tried metropolitan wide initiatives – see Minneapolis for sharing revenues, building housing across the region – but these can be difficult to sell and implement (see, for example, trying to promote mass transit in the Nashville region).

The contrast to Houston would be more established cities in the Northeast and Midwest that have long-standing institutions and coherent neighborhoods. Yet, the fault lines in these places may be too entrenched for significant coming together to happen.

Is there a growing smaller sized city that could lead the way in building social trust amid the pressures of pluralism, disagreement, and limited social trust?

The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19

Reopening and repopulating public spaces during and after COVID-19 might provide difficult:

Yet can you reopen a society — particularly a republic built on openness and public interaction — without its physical institutions at full capacity, without public spaces available for congregation?…

Something else unites these places. In each, the woman on the next bench, the man ahead in the checkout line, the family down the pew are suddenly potential vectors — or potential victims. So we’re assessing the public realm in the way we assess a salad bar when we walk into a restaurant…

“Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world,” John R. Parkinson writes in “Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance.”

“How do you define the ‘public realm’ when an enormous percentage of the American public spends the majority of its day in its pajamas?” Stilgoe says.

This piece raises great questions for a COVID-19 world. The emphasis on how architecture and design shapes public behavior as well as how others in those spaces can be trusted or not is right on. At the same time, there are several elements I would add to this analysis:

1. The definitions of “institution” and “spaces” are pretty broad. Some of the listed locations, like shopping malls, colleges, and grocery stores, are not public spaces. They are owned by private groups that can and do dictate how the space can be used. Some of the other locations, like parks and squares, are public spaces. Government buildings are generally more open to all. Americans privilege private space even though we need some of the private spaces – grocery stores, workplaces – to survive. But, the same rules or expectations do not apply in each of these spaces. We saw this in the Occupy Wall Street protests where gatherings in what looked like public spaces could be ended when they spaces were actually owned by private groups or the government pushed people out. We actually do not have that many public spaces where people regularly gather; many of our “public spaces” are actually privately owned and this matters. The private public spaces require both private groups and the public to cooperate – and they may not always do so.

2. Even before COVID-19, it is not clear that many Americans value public spaces or use them regularly. As noted in #1, Americans like their private spaces. Homes may be less attractive when you are trapped in them but we have a society where success is owning your own suburban single-family home. Add to this declining trust in numerous institutions and it may be hard to make the case that we should put more resources and effort into creating and maintaining public spaces.

3. More broadly, many would argue a thriving society and democracy depends on regular interaction between people. And face-to-face interaction provides benefits that online communication does not regarding communicating clearly and building relationships. Yet, again, this has been on a decline for a while now. Twitter is not a good approximation of public conversation nor a good medium (at least as currently constructed or experienced) for public conversation. Telecommuting may provide efficiencies and allow people more private lives but something will be lost. See my earlier thoughts on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People where he takes up these issues (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four).

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

How trust builds and then declines through online reviews

Two sociologists explain how trust develops and then changes over time in the online sharing economy:

For their research, Parigi and Cook examined Couchsurfing, a website that supports international travel and cultural exchange. Its members both host visitors and surf the site to find sympathetic lodging as they travel the world, all without exchanging money. Profile pages of members list Couchsurfing friends and other personal information.

The findings revealed, the researchers wrote, an interesting mechanism at the root of interpersonal trust: “The accumulation of ratings about users (whether guests or hosts) had a double-edged effect on trust and relationships: it made relationships easier to establish initially but it also weakened them after a certain threshold.”

In other words, technology boosted interpersonal trust among users at first, but it also made it more difficult to build stronger ties as users acquired more and more reviews…

Parigi and Cook explain that in an online community, interactions between people are more normalized, less open to chance. “This is because trustworthiness is promoted not by interpersonal ties, but by the monitoring of one another in a network in which reputations are posted,” they wrote…
As a result, he said, an interesting conundrum seems to be emerging: technology makes it possible for people to trust complete strangers, while at the same time it may be weakening the bonds that unite individuals.

Trust is a necessary component of human relationships; people need to have some confidence that the other person is not going to take advantage of them or let them down and deeper connections can form when mutual trust develops. Yet, trust can develop in different ways. In this particular case, it sounds like the trust is built on crowd-sourced data – posted online reviews – that contribute to confidence but don’t necessarily lead to deeper relationships.

Maybe this is all okay. We don’t expect to form deep relationships with everyone we interact with, particularly when it comes to economic transactions. (Think of interactions with cashiers or waiters or others at the lower status jobs in the service economy.) The larger issue may be when most or all of online interactions develop these qualities. This is the same sort of question that worried Georg Simmel in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel made a similar argument: when humans enter a new social space (the big city) that is built around interdependence and specialization, humans can’t hope to get to know everyone. Similar situation today: humans enter a new social space (the Internet, social media) that prioritizes individual action and choosing what connections to make.

Airbnb turning cities into villages?

The CEO of Airbnb argues his company is reversing the effects of urbanization:

“Cities used to be generally villages, and everyone was essentially kind of like an entrepreneur,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You were either a farmer, or you worked in the city as a blacksmith, or you had some kind of trade. And then the Industrial Revolution happened.” World War II followed, and “suddenly cities became more and more mass-produced. And we stopped trusting our neighbors.”…

“At the most macro level, I think we’re going to go back to the village, and cities will become communities again,” he added. “I’m not saying they’re not communities now, but I think that we’ll have this real sensibility and everything will be small. You’re not going to have big chain restaurants. We’re starting to see farmers’ markets, and small restaurants, and food trucks. But pretty soon, restaurants will be in people’s living rooms.”…

Chesky hopes these transformations will make us question the strange way we parcel out trust. “You trust people more than you trust anything in life—if you know them,” he noted. “You’ll trust your mother, your sister, your daughter, you’ll trust your friends. You’ll trust them more than big governments, big corporations. But a stranger—you’ll trust less than anybody.” Chesky’s question: Why?…

What I find most interesting, though, is that Chesky sees village-like networks sprouting in cities at a time when urbanization is also going in the polar opposite direction. More than half of the world currently lives in cities, and the United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the global population will be urban-dwellers by 2050. In 2011, there were 23 “megacities” of at least 10 million people around the world. By 2050, there will be 37. It’s possible that as cities balloon to overwhelming sizes, we’re coping by carving out smaller communities. But it’s also possible that the phenomenon Chesky is describing is primarily playing out in Western countries. After all, Asia, where Airbnb has a relatively small presence, will account for most new megacities in the coming decades.

I can’t decide whether this is a blatant case of boosterism for his product or some naive thinking about countering the mass process of urbanization. This line of thinking about the differences between villages and cities motivated numerous early sociological thinkers: Marx focused on the effects of industrialization in cities, Durkheim looked at mechanic and organic solidarity as well as the increasingly specialized division of labor, Weber emphasized bureaucracy and rationalization in modern society, and Simmel worried about the effects on individuals. They all saw a big shift taking place and we’re still experiencing the process as well as its effects today.

Yet, haven’t cities always contained some village-like features? Think of the romantic notions about neighborhoods, whether emphasized in a place like Chicago with its 77 community areas or Jane Jacobs’ celebration of Greenwich Village-type places. These smaller units allow residents to know some people closely and to participate in local life. Airbnb might do some of this by erasing some of these traditional geographic boundaries and allowing people to connect. But, it doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term interactions that build up community life.

All together, urbanization is a process with profound effects on everyone. Even suburbanites who think they have escaped urban ills are intimately tied to urbanization through their residence in metropolitan regions.

Why Chicago suburbs are facing more FOIA requests

The Daily Herald reports that a number of Chicago suburbs have seen an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests in recent years:

A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.

Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government.

The requests aren’t all coming from investigative journalists looking to expose corruption, but mostly from regular citizens looking for police reports and information about their homes or their neighbors.

There are several reasons thrown out for the increase in requests: a change in the law in 2010, people seeking more information, businesses looking for background information for their proposals and developments, occasionally a personal vendetta.

I wonder if there aren’t three broader trends that are also contributing:

1. The Internet makes all sorts of information available. And yet, government doings are either hard to track down or obscured. When the rest of the world is opening up its data, is the government keeping up? (At the same time, I’ve heard local government officials suggest the public has more ways than ever to find out things including watching meetings and reading minutes online.)

2. Trust in institutions, such as local government, has been on the decline for several decades. People want to know what local government is doing because they don’t necessarily trust them to act in their interests.

3. With an economic downturn, people are more interested in knowing where their taxes are going. This is particularly true at the local level when many suburbanites want the paradox of higher property values (meaning their investment in housing pays off) but with lower property taxes and better local services. This also leads to a mentality that local government works for the people and should have no problem processing FOIA requests.

Given the time it can take to track down these requests, I’m sure this is something local governments are keeping their eyes on.

 

Claim: Airbnb and Lyft increasing social trust amongst Americans

Social trust in the United States may be declining but one writer argues two new services are providing space where Americans can start trusting a little more:

The sharing economy has come on so quickly and powerfully that regulators and economists are still grappling to understand its impact. But one consequence is already clear: Many of these companies have us engaging in behaviors that would have seemed unthinkably foolhardy as recently as five years ago. We are hopping into strangers’ cars (Lyft, Sidecar, Uber), welcoming them into our spare rooms (Airbnb), dropping our dogs off at their houses (DogVacay, Rover), and eating food in their dining rooms (Feastly). We are letting them rent our cars (RelayRides, Getaround), our boats (Boatbound), our houses (HomeAway), and our power tools (Zilok). We are entrusting complete strangers with our most valuable possessions, our personal experiences—and our very lives. In the process, we are entering a new era of Internet-enabled intimacy.

This is not just an economic breakthrough. It is a cultural one, enabled by a sophisticated series of mechanisms, algorithms, and finely calibrated systems of rewards and punishments. It’s a radical next step for the ­person-to-person marketplace pioneered by eBay: a set of digi­tal tools that enable and encourage us to trust our fellow human beings…

That’s the carrot side of a more intimate economy, the idea that treating people well will result in a better experience. There is a stick side as well: Act badly and you’ll be barred from participat­ing. Nick Grossman, a general manager at Union Square Ventures and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, says that while Uber drivers are generally positive about the service, he has spoken with some who worry about picking up a ­couple of bad reviews, falling below the acceptable rating threshold, and getting fired. (The same holds for passengers: Manit, the Lyft driver, says she won’t pick up anyone with less than a 4.3-star rating.) “There’s a legitimate question: How do we feel about living in an environment of hyper-accountability?” Grossman asks. “It’s very effective at producing certain outcomes. It’s also very Darwinian.” Just like resi­dents of pre-industrial America, sharing-economy participants know that every transaction contributes to a reputation that will follow them, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Two things seem critical to increasing social trust in these systems:

1. The willingness of enough Americans to trust technology to solve problems and be willing to serve as early adopters who work the kinks out of this system. As the article notes, some users have been burned. But, this then gives each service a chance to respond and get it right in the future.

2. These services provide enough guidelines to help people feel safe. This is quite different from stories in recent years about sharing within a neighborhood or a barter system. Those rely on face-to-face interaction, often with people with whom one could expect to have future interactions. These services provide mediated interaction that leads to some face-to-face interaction. The long-term effects of mediated interaction (this is also what social media tends to offer) might be quite different.

Just how many fake Twitter accounts are there? And why does it matter?

Twitter and experts disagree on how many fake Twitter accounts there are:

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes…

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

Read on for more details how the battle between the black market and Twitter’s use of algorithms to discover fake accounts is going. Even if the average user can’t quite figure out who is a real or fake user, the consequences are real:

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

According to this article and others, it appears that fake accounts are most commonly used for promotional purposes, whether for Washington politicians or entertainment stars. How harmful are these fake accounts which might be used to boost the number of followers or retweet material?

On the other hand, Turkle suggests these fake accounts could easily mask what is really happening on Twitter. Perhaps they are pushing certain Twitter trends, which then influences other users. Or, perhaps these fake Twitter accounts could push false news reports, which could have some different consequences depending on the situation. It could be worse if a large number of users find out they were interacting with or trying to engage with fake accounts.

While I agree with Turkle that this does present an important trust issue, I wonder if it would take some high profile case before this becomes a real issue. Imagine someone is able to use a set of fake accounts to pull off a terrorist act or throw off the government.

Testing rules of reciprocity two ways: sociologist sends out Christmas cards to strangers, making requests of strangers in Facebook

In 1974, a sociologist tested the social norms of reciprocity by sending out Christmas cards to 600 strangers. He received a sizable response:

And so he went out and collected directories for some nearby towns and picked out around 600 names. “I started out at a random number and then skipped so many and got to the next one,” he says.

To these 600 strangers, Kunz sent his Christmas greetings: handwritten notes or a card with a photo of him and his family. And then Kunz waited to see what would happen.

“It was just, you know, a shot in the dark,” he says. “I didn’t know what would happen.”

But about five days later, responses started filtering back — slowly at first and then more, until eventually they were coming 12, 15 at a time. Eventually Kunz got more than 200 replies. “I was really surprised by how many responses there were,” he says. “And I was surprised by the number of letters that were written, some of them three, four pages long.”…

“We got cards for maybe 15 years,” he says.

While the article goes on to discuss why strangers might reciprocate in this way, I wonder how much this applies to the social realm of Facebook. If someone did something similar on Facebook today, such as making friend requests of many people they don’t know or sending messages to strangers, would people respond in the same way? From personal experience, research on the topic, and an experiment one of my students did this semester by sending messages to random Facebook users and receiving no response, reciprocation does not occur to the same degree in Facebook. Here are a few reasons why this might be the case:

1. A growing distrust of strangers. On Facebook, this sort of behavior tends to be described as “creepy.” Even as media sources suggest users, particularly kids and teenagers, can meet all sorts of random people online, most users tend to stick with people they already know or who are in geographic proximity (like classmates at the same school).

2. People are less in the habit of having to reciprocate because more encounters on Facebook are controlled, meaning they happen when a user wants them to happen. In other words, chance encounters between people who don’t know each other are more limited. Overall, Facebook and text messaging and other means make it more possible to have social interactions on someone’s own terms.

To some degree, reciprocity is part of how trust is built between social actors. It is part of basic exchanges: if you ask someone “how are you doing?” you expect a polite response. If you provide a favor for someone at work, we tend to expect a favor in return down the road. However, these sorts of exchanges may look very different on Facebook (for example, common encouraging responses to new profile pictures or posts about tough circumstances) and could signal larger shifts in how people interact.