Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Downtown Virtual Pittsburgh

Now that downtown Pittsburgh is a Wi-Fi hotspot, how might the urban social geography change? Co-op housing at the University of Texas at Austin offers a few hints:

The current interest in co-ops stems in part from the economic imperative that rising housing costs have wrought. But more than anything else, students suggest, it has grown up in reaction to the alienating aspects of modern campus life, where the increased presence of technology, while enabling certain kinds of connection, has had a hand in limiting others.

In Austin, the sense of social dispersion is especially acute. Fifty thousand students attend the University of Texas, though it has room for fewer than a fifth of them. This means that students seeking rental apartments in the city’s booming real estate market, where a 1,000-square-foot apartment near campus may command $2,000 a month, are often forced to live 20 or 30 miles away, divorced from any semblance of collective life. And dormitories at the university, chief among them Dobie, a glass tower that reaches up into the city skyline like the headquarters of a global bank, are typically likened by students to nursing homes or prisons.

Living on the internet lends itself to a feeling of social dislocation and high real estate prices may exclude younger (along with the retired) knowledge workers from living in dense urban environments. Co-operative housing could provide a solution to both problems. Sharing housing costs (and chores) with members of your affinity network would not only decrease your rent or mortgage, you would have the opportunity to spend considerable face time with your creative peers.

The presence of a large Wi-Fi network also provides a cheap alternative to web access while providing people with another reason to hang out downtown. City public places should be redesigned to encourage a hybrid of virtual and real interaction. People might gather in a park for a global webinar, listening on wireless headphones and then engaging in local discussion afterwards.

I envision Burgh Diaspora co-ops around the United States, strategically located in other municipal hotspots. People living in these network nodes would have more knowledge of their widely-scattered neighbors than their surrounding area. This is quite similar to the relatively homogenous experience of any global city's business district. As one college town looks more and more like any other, so will the neighborhoods of municipal hotspots.

1 comment:

Amos_thePokerCat said...

Since you are not here, check out my review comments about how usefull the PIT MuFi really is. To sum it up in a nut shell, it is pretty limited in location, and bandwidth. IMHO, the $500K money would have been better spent making WiFi available at all Carnegie Libraries, and upgrading the library bandwith to a minimally useable Web 2.0 level like 1.5Mb/s, or a T-1 minimum per library.

Of course, other cities show more common sense than just throwing money around, like Anaheim (and Philly). They have a real city wide (1500 node! not 60) WiFi network, and the city did not have to spend a dime to do it. It is also not a monopoly. Earthlink only has dibs on the specific lamp post their hardware is mounted on, not every lamppost in the city.