Monday, September 5, 2011

Please have your photo ID ready...

In 1999, Francis Fukuyama released The Great Disruption, a book about the changing social conditions that have supposedly followed the shift from a manufacturing economy to an information-based economy. In it, he details changes--disruptions--in daily life, with regard to how we interact with others.

Fukuyama--idealist that he is--argues that these disruptions are normal and will self-correct over time. I don't think he's right, but the book is fascinating, nonetheless (in the same way that his The End of History was fascinating, if totally wrong). One of the things he talked about was the shift to gated communities in suburbia. When I was growing up--in the seventies and eighties--such things were almost non-existent. There were higher-end enclaves of homes, 'tis true. But access to the public streets of these areas was not restricted. Often, the home owners associations for such areas employed private security to patrol the neighborhood, put up large signs noting the official name of the area (where I grew up in Newport News, the big money was in James Landing), and limited access to the area by having only one or two streets leading in and out of it.

But the growth of suburbia and a plethora of new developments brought a new standard: the gated community. Today, they're everywhere. Initially, they signified wealthy communities. Not so, anymore. Now, many middle class and even lower middle class developments are gated. The means of getting past the guard--for visitors--varies. At some locations, the guard merely takes down your name and/or your license plate number. At others, the guard might ask for the name of the person you are visiting, then call that person before admitting you. At still others, you're asked for your ID, which is then run through a scanner. In the extreme, it might be all of the above, plus a print-out giving you permission to be there that you must put on your dashboard or hang from your rear-view mirror.

Needless to say, there are some clear benefits here. The added security certainly can be a comfort to local residents, but it also can lead to breaks on insurance. Plus, limiting traffic makes it safer for kids--and adults--to play in their yards and walk or bike through the neighborhood.

So what's the problem?

Well according to Fukuyama, this arrangement leads to a kind of "gated" lifestyle, wherein there's far less unplanned interaction with others. And I think he's dead on target. People that live in gated communities--paradoxically--stay inside their homes, their own yards, even though the communities should be safer and more open, even though the communities often have common areas, like parks, pools, and meeting facilities. Oh sure, they'll utilize such things for parties, but the parties are private ones, more often than not.

Of course, this isn't true for everyone in a gated community. But I think it's very much the norm. Beyond that, the communities isolate their members from very close by neighborhoods that maybe are also gated, or maybe are not. Either way, interaction from one to the other requires planning, requires permission.

Me, I don't ever want to live in a gated community. I think it cuts me off from the world in too many ways (even if I have wifi).

Islands of security and good living, or islands of solitude?

Cheers, all.

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