Social Distancing Can Travel Online

Social Distancing Can Travel Online

So much has been said about how online chats, email and conferencing are filling the void left by social distancing, I thought it would be worth sending a word of caution.

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger

Communication online is not a real substitute for person-to-person face-to-face communication. It is most often a complement. That is, people generally communicate online with those they communicate with offline. It reinforces face-to-face communication. For example, when you worry that your kids come home from school and spend all their time online with virtual friends, you are probably wrong. They are most likely continuing conversations with kids they talk to at school. So old fears about people being online too much leading to social isolation, are usually overblown. The most connected individuals online tend to be the most connected off-line.  

Another example is from work. In the 1970s, communication engineers pushed teleconferencing and video conferencing as a substitute for travel. It was more efficient and environmentally friendly, so why travel to exchange information. It did not work. Instead of what Jack Nilles and his colleagues* called T3, ‘telecommunication-transportation-tradeoffs’, researchers found telecommunication enhanced travel – you would communicate online with people you were going to meet and then communicate after you meet. Telecommunication was a complement, not a substitute.

Of course, people meet new people online, most obviously through the use of online dating or social media, and this is very significant. It reconfigures who you know, not simply how often you communicate with them.** You can extend networks online with individuals who share your interests, for example. The frequent point is where else would you meet others interested in extreme ironing. However, most online communication is with those you speak to in everyday life and work. 

The combination of roles attributed to online media are powerful in reinforcing and extending social networks. But in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing, what will be the effect on online social networks? Will social media simply fill the void and compensate for the loss of face-to-face communication? Think of how Zoom, used for video communication among distributed groups, has grown from 10 million to 300 million users in a matter of weeks. So maybe, but I have my doubts. 

Depending on how long social distancing continues, I expect that online communication will continue to follow and reinforce offline communication. That is, it will shrink and become far more local. That is what the empirical relationship between on- and off-line communication would tell me. But what about personal experience?

In the short term, I see more of my neighbors, as I clap for the NHS, or walk my dog, or exercise in my neighborhood. And I am more often online with neighbors, such as in a WhatsApp group to ensure that anyone in need of food or other help can get help from a neighbor. Already, my local community has become more important online. 

But online, I can see my overall social network becoming less vibrant. It is proportionately filled more with advertising, political campaign messages, and government alerts, and less by personal messages from friends. Having moved several times during my career, I can watch my online network diminishing with those from the place I’ve left and growing from the place to which I’ve moved. Geography matters in part because it reduces off-line communication. 

Maybe I am wrong. Times and contexts change such that telecommunication might become a substitute rather than a complement to travel, but I don’t see evidence yet. That said, my bottom line is not to be pessimistic, but also not to be complacent about your social networks. 

This may only be a message to myself but think about it. You may well need to be proactive and serious about keeping in touch with friends and family in order to keep your network vital to your life and work. If you let it move with the comings and goings of emails and conference calls, your online life is likely to become less meaningful and vibrant. Social isolation will translate to more online isolation, unless you actively work to ensure this does not happen. You may be communicating more with friends online early in this period of social distancing, but that will pass unless you make a concerted and sustained effort. 

*Nilles, J., Carlson, F. R. , Jr., Gray, P., and Hanneman, G. J. (1976), The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

**Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also, Dutton, W. H. (2005), ‘Continuity or Transformation? Pp. 13-24 in Dutton, W. H., Kahin, B., O’Callaghan, R., and Wyckoff, A. W. (eds), Transforming Enterprise: The Economic and Social Implications of Information Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger

A Problematic Plan for Development of the City of Oxford

I am worried that the City of Oxford is poised to approve a long-term plan for the development of the city that will not accomplish its objectives. Reviews of the Oxford Local Plan  have complimented the drafters for how well it is written. Reviewers have been impressed by the vision it portrays which promises to balance the various tradeoffs inevitably faced in land use planning. However, the critics do not call out the serious risks that the plan poses for what is valued in Oxford by current and future residents and visitors.

Think of the fundamental physical realities of its proposals: The city is limited by the ring road and the green belt to a constrained physical space. Already, the city is seriously congested. In that context, the Council proposes to add thousands of additional households. Inevitably, the results will be:

  • Even greater congestion;
  • Reduced restrictions on the height of buildings and households with inevitable diminishment of the Oxford skyline behind taller buildings;
  • The loss of parking spaces, and diminished garden spaces, when parking and gardens are already quite limited, and the loss of sunlight blocked by developments higher and closer to existing structures;
  • A potential loss of families, who will choose to move to areas where they can drive their children to schools and sporting events;
  • Building on a large proportion of the ‘buildable’ green belt (land that is not in flood plains that could not be built upon in any case).

There is likely a tipping point in growing Oxford at which the congestion and over-build will truly undermine its special character, and make it what the Council envisions – a ‘grown up’ city that is no more special than other cities. That might bring a reduction in housing prices but also a growth of the problems facing other grown up cities, such as further deterioration of businesses, tourism and housing in the central city.

Almost everything that we value in the City of Oxford today is at risk for the promise of a vision that appears to me to be overly optimistic, such as moving hotels in neighbourhoods like Summertown in order to shift activity outside the city central core. That has been the dream in so many cities, and has never worked to my knowledge. It will simply add to the capacity of hotels across the city and enable more people to visit Oxford’s core city. Good but not at the cost of undermining the quality of these neighbourhoods.

So why is the Council proposing what seems will inevitably undermine the quality of Oxford?

It could mean ‘£215m of new funding in order to support Oxfordshire’s ambition to plan for and support the delivery of 100,000 homes by 2031.’  That is for all of Oxfordshire from central government, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for meeting their agreed housing targets. Whatever proportion the City receives would be significantly less, but could be important when the City is stressed for funding.

However, compare this sum to the sums of other developments. Over £400M was invested in the development of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre. So, one new shopping centre in the city has attracted far more money than the City’s long-term plan will attract from the central government. Surely there will be additional revenues from the development of more housing, new hotels, but at what cost? Moreover, the shopping centre added value to the city, and renovated a deteriorated area, while the plans threaten to diminish the value of our entire city.

So I am worried that the Council is putting the character of Oxford at risk for less than the price of a modern shopping centre. The outcomes of implementing this plan are unknowable. There are likely to be unanticipated and unintended and indirect outcomes as well as any of the intended outcomes that are envisioned. The Council cannot possibly know the consequences of their plans, even if written with the best of intentions, beyond the promise of money from central government.

What should be done? In my opinion, the city should slow down. Don’t strap the City with this Oxford Local Plan that is so problematic. Instead, focus on affordable housing, and move more incrementally. Make decisions based on considering the details of particular cases. Insure that key constituencies are involved, such as the Oxford Preservation Trust, and residents – genuinely listening to the public, including the many schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and residents in the city. Have a rolling, evolving plan that is revisited continually and does not set Oxford on a potentially harmful long-range course at a moment in time filled with uncertainties. There is too much to lose, and too little to gain, for the city to commit to the current, overly optimistic and ambitious plan, however well-written.

That said, I would welcome comments, criticisms, or corrections of any aspects of this plan that I failed to understand.

Respectfully,

Bill Dutton

Resident of Oxford

 

Oxford Local Plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/743/the_local_plan