A Communications Theory of Urban Growth

By Richard L. Meier; Resources for the Future | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
PUBLIC CONTROLS FOR COMMUNICATIONS

Once the techniques of communications have been developed and have proved their value, they are quickly overworked. The tongue-tied child becomes the unceasing conversationalist. The firm that learns how to market a product importunes an ever-increasing number of prospects in an effort to convert them into customers. More and more activities compete for each person's attention, each with its special signals, symbols, arguments and inducements. Modern technology has made available to the sender a tremendous multiplier for his messages that operates at relatively low average cost per message. Most of the time the marginal cost of transmitted messages is much less than the average cost, so the temptation to broadcast is very great indeed.

The inevitable result is the harassment of persons who have unusual competence, influential position, political power, or better than average incomes. As communications mount over time, an increasing fraction of the urban population is placed in stressful situations from which it is difficult to retreat because the defenses have yet to be perfected.

The heavy communicators in government, business, the professions, and the arts receive several messages for each one they initiate. They are often so overloaded that the transactions interfere with each other and that meaningful messages must be refused. Therefore they need an urban environment that protects them from the arrival of repetitions, redundant and trivial communications. The plight of organizations has already been reviewed. They need both flexibility in internal operations and a rationalized environment if they are to deal with the extra demands for services that must be anticipated.

These pressures make it appear quite likely that new styles of life will evolve in modern cities which allow individuals and groups to interact over long periods of time at levels very close to their respective capacities and yet seldom exceed the limits of the tolerable. One apparently crucial feature of such a style is the initiative to make or break connections. It should be left with the persons and groups operating under greatest stress (of which communicationsstress represents only one of several recognizable types) so that the greatest freedom of choice is provided. More and more in the future the various forms of privacy may be expected to serve as a semi-permeable social barrier that protects against communications overload. The design of communications systems and the layout of offices and homes so as to implement privacy, and yet not impose social isolation, is already under way.

The receiver is forced to design a filter for the incoming messages. He raises a private barrier so that the demands for his attention float by apparently unheeded until an appropriate term, or visual symbol, triggers off a small jolt that fixes his attention. The mass producers of messages learn through experience about the defenses and the susceptibilities of individuals. The jangle or buzz of the telephone is designed to carry through most other sounds at work and at home. The good teacher manipulates the symbols and situations so that they really break through the private daydreams of the members of his class. Contact men bear tips to the decision makers. Executives who become

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