Shadow of bicyclist against a wall
Brian Snyder/Reuters

This week: Stories about the sort-of-secrets of the city.  

In a town hall last week, Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, was asked about the Obama-era internet privacy regulations that he had voted to strike down. The 2016 FCC rules prevented service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from selling your browsing history to advertisers without your consent. Or, they would have, starting in December, if they’d been allowed to take effect, which they weren’t. “You know, nobody’s got to use the internet,” Sensenbrenner told his aggrieved constituent.

True enough! But people on the internet still objected to this formulation, noting that a great many working adults would find it very difficult indeed to find jobs or navigate their daily lives without internet access. Just 13 percent of American adults are taking Sensenbrenner’s advice these days, according to Pew Research Center. Most are, like the 73-year-old congressman, older—41 percent of those 65 and up say they never go online. Rural Americans are twice as likely to be internet non-users than urban or suburban dwellers; the phenomenon is also correlated with low income and educational attainment. The vast majority are not staying offline to avoid the prying eyes of the Man: Only 3 percent cite privacy concerns. Most just say they’re not interested, or it’s too expensive or difficult to learn. Along with pristine blank-slate browsing histories and minds unclouded by meme exposure, those who have sworn off online interactions also have the opportunity to preserve the mystery and awe of the pre-web world, a time when finding stuff out involved opening books, making phone calls, and physically leaving your immediate surroundings.

It’s tempting to romanticize this era, but there was a lot of schlepping involved. I belong to that sliver of the Gen X population that began its working years before widespread web access, and while intellectually I realize that I am the same person doing the same basic job, the poky rhythms of life before the Information Superhighway moved in now feel very alien indeed. Huge amounts of time and energy were once poured into the pursuit of questions that are now answered in the time it takes to type them.

I worked at alternative weeklies and city magazines, where the bills got paid with gala annual “Best of...” issues that often promised to reveal the “Secrets of the City.” These issues live on, of course, though the sense of occasion has diminished now that a session on Yelp can yield a similar, if not objectively better, set of results. Back, then, though, we took these responsibilities at least semi-seriously, since sussing out the Best Bar to Play Darts required phone calls and shoe leather and luck. (However, it was harder for readers of yore to angrily complain that you’d gotten it wrong.) The un-Googleable city was a fortress of secrets. And, once you’d penetrated it and determined (as I once did) where the best hole-in-the-wall Caribbean carry-out or Urban Fishing Hole was, you were likely to claim, righteously, that you’d discovered the place.

It’s a bit harder to make these statements now, though many still do. The city has no more secrets; everything and (almost) everyone is online, somewhere. We all became curators, not discoverers. But there’s still a value is surfacing these curios and artifacts and exposing them to new eyes.

This week, CityLab will be looking around for these not-quite-secrets and talking about why cities remain the best places to find them. Even the indexed, mapped, and fully searchable cities of the online age harbor their obscure corners and gnomic rituals, from speakeasies and private social clubs to forgotten landmarks and hidden infrastructure. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that the density and clamor of the urban environment provides just the camouflage that a true privacy-seeker requires today to truly get lost, online or off.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  2. A map of auto loan debt across the U.S.
    Maps

    Mapping the Subprime Car Loan Crisis

    A new tool by the Urban Institute maps the geography of car loan debt and delinquency.

  3. a photo of New York City subway commuters.
    Perspective

    New York City’s Self-Induced Transportation Crisis

    Bill de Blasio and other city officials are heading for commuting calamity by failing to properly plan a coherent vision for subways, buses, e-bikes, and ride-hailing.

  4. A pupil works on a cardboard architectural model at a Hong Kong primary school.
    Design

    The Case for Architecture Classes in Schools

    Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.

  5. A photo of low-profile electric fire trucks on display at China's International Import Expo.
    Transportation

    The Fire Trucks Are Too Damn Big

    Smaller heavy-duty emergency vehicles could save a lot of lives, says a new Department of Transportation report.