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The Death and Life of Great American Networks

The chapter, The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety, from the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities written by Jane Jacobs and published in 1961, is profoundly relevant today in its take on urban safety as a function of emergent effects of sidewalk as network. The closing paragraph of the chapter reads:

On Hudson Street, the same as in the North End of Boston or in any other animated neighborhoods of great cities, we are not innately more competent at keeping the sidewalks safe than are the people who try to live off the hostile truce of Turf in a blind-eyed cty. We are the lucky possessors of a city order that makes it relatively simple to keep the peace because there are plenty of eyes on the street. But there is nothing simple about that order itself, or the bewildering number of components that go into it. Most of those components are specialized in one way or another. They unite in their joint effect upon the sidewalk, which is not specialized in the least. That is its strength.

In example after example, Jacobs illustrates the beauty of the ordered city, not one held siege by heavy policing, but instead one that primarily polices itself. This, over 40 years later, is exemplified by the New York that I am lucky enough to inhabit today.

What is most significant here, is that the underlying network of all of this street level behavior, the sidewalk, is not specialized. Within reason, all types of people and behavior are tolerated and appreciated. The successful city realizes that with a few notable (and usually violent) exceptions, activity trumps inactivity, is beneficial for the network as a whole, and should be treated with equal respect, regardless of traditional moralist standards of "acceptable" behavior.

This activity then bolsters the strength of the network. It is a beautifully elegant natural solution, BitTorrent meets SneakerNet. Activity begets activity, and also provides the resources and safety necessary for this added activity. In this case, it is not bandwidth that is at issue, but instead eyes to monitor the safety of a city's streets.

The million dollar question remains, however — how to bolster this type of activity in a place where it currently does not exist by nature. Jacobs lists a number of failed attempts, typically very harsh segregation that is paralleled to the Turf system used by street gangs, but I have yet to find a clear answer in the positive as to how to all at once revitalize a neighborhood without running into the problems presented by artifically imposing culture upon a neighborhood.

What is clear, however, is the notion of sidewalk as network; specifically a network that benefits and flourishes under what may appear to some to be the burden of added activity. I think this is second nature to most of us that have lived in or visited thriving urban environments as well as their depressed counterparts. The phenomenon of safety in numbers seems second nature, but still some planners and developers must only feel safe when they are alone.

There are strong parallels here to the current debate over net neutrality, where as a knee jerk reaction to a few "internets" that were slow to arrive, small-minded regulators come to the quick "realization" that artificially imposed sanctions on usage patterns and their priorities are the answer, ignorant of the fact that this ruins the elegant simplicity of the network itself, much as some people feel that a bustling nightlife in their neighborhood will inevitably bring crime, when generally the opposite is actually true.

In the case of net neutrality, how hacker-proof will these prioritizing systems be? I have yet to see a non-trivial example of rights management or copy protection that a handful of well motivated college students were unable to crack. And then where are we? Not only do we have tubes half filled with trash, but the smelliest of the garbage, that of the criminals that have learned to defeat the system, has priority over the rest of our content. It's much the same argument as is often made against gun control, but I think precedent shows that these laws would be even more difficult to enforce.

If you don't believe me, go search Torrentz for your favorite high-priced software package. Almost invariably, its developers have spent countless dollars on implementing various copy protection strategies only for them to be almost immediately broken by "crackers" across the globe (don't steal software.). I think I hardly need to suggest what is likely to happen if means are opened to prioritize traffic on the internet. The fact is, I don't know, but I am willing to bet that it isn't the simplistic, utopian result that the regulators envision.

The broadest lesson to be taken from all of this is that whenever networks are examined beyond the most trivial of examples, whether in the technological or the human arena, things are rarely as simple and straightforward as they appear. Often precisely the opposite is true, and even more often, simplicity of policy is beauty in practice.

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