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Be Private and Perish

June 17, 2008

In examining Canada’s place in the new global realities opening up around us, I like to think about the key message of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”: “Perhaps the crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change (p. 433).”

What are the values Canadians hold that are dragging us down an unsustainable path? There are many candidates that come to mind, each with its own sense of invincibility. Consumerism? Property rights? Sovereignty itself? But one value that is showing signs of weakness, and may just have to go for the greater good, is our sense of entitlement to privacy.

Along with cheap water and global hockey dominance, privacy is a luxury that we Canadians have learned to take for granted. We have backyards to enjoy in relative solitude. We cocoon ourselves in cars or retreat into our headphone universes as we journey from place to place. And our familiarity with local gossip rarely exceeds one or two houses distant from our own.

Although comfortable, privacy has its costs. Urban sprawl, consumerism, class segregation, voter apathy, and general loneliness can all be blamed at least in part on the thirst for greater privacy. Countering these social afflictions will require that Canadians step away from the private and into the realm of the communal. Living in compact cities with lower environmental footprints and higher chances of bumping into people. Taking public transit to reduce our fossil fuel addiction. Listening to opinions counter to our own in an attempt to address complex societal problems collaboratively.

Ironically, it may be the invention of the virtual world that will help create closer real-world communities. Communications technologies provide the means to break down the barriers of private information and personal space, so that we can open up without feeling vulnerable. Today’s youth growing up in the age of MySpace and cellphones are much less reticent to share personal information with the world. This virtual openness may very well translate into a new Canadian reality that is comfortable sharing public infrastructure, engaging with neighbours, and generally feeling part of collective society rather than reigning over private domains. This may not be enough to save modernity from itself, but it is a necessary first step to realizing that we can’t hide from the changing world around us.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2008 2:25 pm

    Hello Adam. I really enjoyed your well-crafted, thoughtful blog entry. I’m supposed to be blogging on cities, and I’ve been finding it challenging to make appropriate connections to the global issues orientation of the project we’re part of. Your contribution makes some of those connections and reinforces my long-held view that cities are very much at the heart of global change.

  2. adamfritz permalink*
    June 18, 2008 2:52 am

    Thanks for the comments! I share your concerns as to how we live will evolve. Will we reduce our footprint or will we segregate into geographic class divides of monster home owning haves and house poor have nots? Even if we do reduce our footprint, will we do so willingly or will we be forced into it through centralized planning or a large-scale economic downturn?

    The focus of Jared Diamond’s question (and my post), however, is not on the tools and habits that we will need to make the necessary turn towards sustainability, but rather on the impact of those changes on the values that we hold dear. Canadians will never change their values overnight, but over time the importance of certain cherished beliefs will have to diminish if we are to embrace the changes necessary to allow for a future in which our children will still enjoy a decent quality of life. The question, really, is what is truly a factor in your quality of life and what is superfluous? Our own private spaces (or at least an excessive amount of private space) will have to go.

    As for ICT, I too don’t have a cellphone, nor want one, but I’m still a believer. Will it solve our problems? No. Will it help? It better! The only thing I know is that communications technology is changing so fast that it will radically alter how society functions so that the world of the next generation will be extremely different from the one I grew up in. Whether we use the technology to change things for the better or for passing the time as we await our destiny with ecological collapse is up to us.

  3. June 17, 2008 5:40 pm

    Greetings Adam, and thank you for this insightful piece.
    I agree with you that communications technology may be an answer to our big city loneliness but it should not be the only one.

    When I first arrived in Vancouver as a fresh immigrant, the people I first met (apart from my landlord and the immigration officers), where people I met through the web, be it facebook or blogs; I have to say some of them became very close friends and a small community of recent immigrants and bloggers slowly built itself in the city, allowing us to meet a wide variety of people with different opinions and views.

    I lived in many big cities and meeting people in your neighborhood may just be a matter of not being afraid to start a conversation with the grocer or the guy who drives your bus. There are different levels between being a nosy neighbor and just a caring neighbor. Just as Renee, I don’t own a car, live in a condo and commute via transit or my bike. I meet many people around my neighborhood, and some are delightful. Overcoming our shyness is one way to reach out to others and confront ourselves to different views. Smaller, compact cities will leave us no other choice than to learn how to live together, for better or worse. I do think one can protect one’s privacy without closing out the world.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    June 17, 2008 2:37 am

    Adam, a fascinating piece. I’ve yet to read Diamond’s “Collapse” but everyone else seems to have read it…You raise a host of issues i’ve been grappling with…as an immigrant-citizen without a cellphone (!) who doesn’t drive, lives in a condo, doesn’t eat meat etc…quite by accident my inner nerdiness suddenly puts me on the “right side” of some of these issues. I see a great divide looming between educated creative class professionals who embrace change and technology and other follks – working people who can’t afford post secondary education, work at middle management jobs or service industry jobs, don’t want change, drive cars to the suburbs b/c that’s where they can afford to live. Perhaps communications technologies will help provide an answer. I’m still pretty luddite to Believe but i’d like to…and i worry about who will decide about where and how we live. For example, i live in the suburbs but take transit b/c i don’t drive. It’s a real hassle getting groceries. The folks i know who embrace a ‘car-free’ culture generally live in areas with robust infrastructure that are affluent so “not driving” is more pleasurable and convenient. I live in a spacious condo but it’s still a lot smaller than many of my UBC prof friends who “talk the talk” but live very large homes. Who will decide for whom about how we live?

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