Suburbia and its culturally draining impact

As I was standing in line at the grocery store, a friend I was with started wondering aloud why people would care so much about the endless celebrity drama portrayed on tabloid covers. The gossip industry is a highly competitive and profitable one. Publishers are often willing to pay a photographer tens or even hundreds of thousands to get that one most-desired shot. After giving this some thought, I believe the popularity of tabloids, among many other cultural phenomena, are indirectly connected to the influx of suburban sprawl the United States has seen in recent decades.

Effects of physical community arrangement

Before suburbs became popular with Americans, the three main components of society – residential, commercial, and industrial sectors (thanks for engraining those in my head, SimCity) – were very close together. Sometimes, one could find all three sectors in the same building. But, as societies continued to grow, the urban areas became overcrowded and busy, and as a result, people developed a desire for a blend between rural countryside lifestyles while still maintaining easy access to cities.

The predecessor to today’s suburbs were very much literal cabins in the woods, according to architecture author and novelist James Kunstler in his TED talk in 2004. Once these lone homes became popular in the 1950s, vast tracts of them were constructed and created the types of suburbs many of us live in today. While the original idea of a suburb was to live away from the city, while still close enough to it to commute, commercial and industrial sectors began to move into the suburbs to accommodate the rising number of suburban-dwellers. Demand for commercial and especially industrial sectors in urban environments fell dramatically once significant portions of a city’s population moved away from the city’s center, and the three main societal sectors became segregated.

Suburbs have now furthered the need to commute between locations. Before suburbs, people were naturally brought together in public spaces. When a city’s population is able to live, work and play in close quarters, the need to commute is reduced and can even be eliminated. Suburb-dwellers, though, must travel anywhere from ten to thirty minutes to go anywhere significant beside their homes. A tremendous issue of isolation exists for people living in suburbs.

To understand this point further, watch Kunstler’s passionate talk from TED 2004 here:

Maintaining culture through communication

Communication is a key component to maintaining a culture. By definition, culture is built around shared meaning and experience. Without communication, culture starts to become frail and ill-maintained. All cultures, from the ancient to the present, have made some attempt to eternalize their beliefs, values, stories, and experiences. Ancients resorted to such expressions of culture as cave paintings, rock carvings, monument construction, etc. Today, our culture is recorded in a plethora of mediums, including books, photographs, and blogs. Arguably, the mediums used today aren’t as permanent as those used thousands of years ago, but both sets of cultures recorded themselves just the same.

Radio and television were primary modes of mass communication sixty years ago, while the telephone facilitated peer-to-peer communication. Options for communication are more varied today, and range from texting and picture messaging, to e-mail and social networking. On the most basic level, these forms of communication arose in order to help strengthen cultures. They can’t, however, substitute for real-world shared experiences, the basis and inspiration for storytelling in culture. Culture begins to degrade when communication is reduced or eliminated from it, but a larger factor for sustaining culture is maintaining a high level of real-world shared experiences. If people within a certain culture do not have shared experiences, their culture begins to rapidly degenerate. It’s no coincidence that suburbs and mass communication took on popularity around the same time period, the 1950s.

Impact of physical community arrangement on culture

An aerial view of housing developments near Markham, Ontario. Photo by IDuke, November 2005.

Because the dissemination of physical communities, and therefore a significant reduction in face-to-face communication, shared experiences have reduced at a rate that directly correlates to the popularity of suburban living. The closer physical arrangement of communities seen in more urban environments naturally brings people together. Face-to-Face communication often occurs without appointments. In suburban lifestyles, in order to accomplish face-to-face communication and have more shared experiences, people often need to take time and resources to move from place to place. Essentially, people are far more isolated from one another today, and face-to-face communication, and shared experiences as a result, are more limited as a result.

Substitutes for true shared experiences were needed when physical communities became more separated by suburbia. Mass media rose out of this need. Storytelling via radio, television, etc. has satisfied, to varying degrees, people’s newfound needs for shared experience and storytelling. (Side note: In broadcast announcing, talking to the audience is referred to as “visiting” and carries a familiar tone, as if the announcer was talking with the listener personally.)

Furthermore, the Internet has facilitated shared experience in a duplex, digital context. The use of social networking has exploded because it’s a faster form of communicating with more people without having to be in the same physical location. Services exist for virtual meetups, including Second Life. Such methods of attaining virtual shared experiences have been rising exponentially in the last 15 years, and is poised to continue to increase so long as suburbs isolate large portions of the population.

Shared experiences – personal and media-generated

The percentage of shared experienced that are media driven varies from person to person. For some, media makes up a majority of their shared experiences. Many know at least one person who spends much of their time watching television or posting on Facebook in lieu of having real-life experiences with other people. It’s these kinds of people tabloids cater to.

More specifically: The higher the percentage of shared experiences had by one person by mass media, the broader and more personal the genres of mass media consumed by that person will be. People who make up, say, 20 percent of their shared experiences with mass media, have a substantial amount of shared experiences coming from real life. These most certainly include personal subjects – what’s commonly referred to as “drama.” People who make up a larger percentage of their shared experiences from mass media, i.e. 60 percent or more, likely do not personally experience as much “drama” as they would like to, and resort to media outlets for gossip news.

It is at this point the definition of “shared experience” can be interchanged with certain genres of media. Genres like gossip were typically reserved for close personal friends, family etc. in the times before mass media prevalence. When enough people allow a majority of their shared experiences to be media-provided, those once personal topics begin to come into demand, and accessible subjects, celebrities, became targets for this need. The public is aware of celebrities and their works and existence, and because of their notoriety, they have become of interest to people seeking shared experiences in place of their own personal “drama.”

Conclusion

In his TED talk in 2004, Kunstler described the typical suburban home as “habitats” that “are producing immense amounts of anxiety and depression in children.” Adults aren’t the only people accepting these virtual shared experiences. Children are increasingly exposed to mass media, and more and more of their shared experiences are coming from television, cinema, and the Internet. It will be devastating for those children with high levels of media-driven shared experience when they realize there is little special or unique about their culture, and it’s all been hand-fed to them instead of experienced by themselves. On the same token, adults must be careful to not let their cultures be drowned out by media. They must make a conscious decision to avoid the suburban lifestyle as much as possible for the sake of preserving their individual cultures. And, for goodness sake, let’s not allow celebrity gossip to become our only shared “drama” experience.

 

About The Author

Kyle Anderson
I'm a media and IT professional and JavaScript developer who worked most recently as an Associate Broadcast IT Engineer (Tier II) for CNN in Atlanta. One of my life-long goals is to help bridge data divides - missing connections between software systems and data stores - promoting inter-system communication and automation. Many of the projects described here reflect this goal in some way or another.