The Economist recently had an article titled “Every Step You Take: Google Glass, Ubiquitous Cameras And The Threat To Privacy.” I got to thinking about privacy, and how in some sense it is a twentieth-century, suburban phenomenon.
In small towns, everyone knows everyone else’s business, or at least a lot of it, or so I have been led to believe. People know – and are concerned about – their neighbors. This is true to some small extent in cities — among people in an apartment house, for example, sometimes — in my experience it is not the case in the suburbs.
Part of this may be architecture. Ranch style houses are not necessarily conducive to neighborliness. This is particularly true of some forms of modern architecture found in California, namely the Eichler and similar styles by other builders.
I dislike Eichlers, notwithstanding the fact that I own one. (Why buy a house I was less than enamored of? It was affordable –a very big deal when we bought it, and God knows we could not afford to buy it today — in a good neighborhood, close to good schools, and ten minutes away from the Rocket Scientist’s workplace. I’m willing to overlook architecture in that case.) They are designed to insulate families from ever having to interact with anyone else.
Privacy for the family is paramount. In many Eichler designs, unlike other house styles, there is no front window or porch. The front of the house is a blank wall — the garage. The door is on the side of the house, not the front, and in many cases is behind a gate. Unless you make an effort, you never see your neighbors unless you both are heading out the door to go to work at the same time. You can’t sit in the living room and watch the world go by, as I had in previous houses I lived in. I sit in the living room and watch the squirrels and think things like “Damn, we’ve got another feral fig tree. Those things are worse than kudzu.” Nice enough, but a little lacking in the human touch.
(Eichlers are also a complete bitch to climate control. They have huge floor to ceiling windows which let in lots of light but which leach air-conditioning and heating like crazy. Their one absolutely wonderful feature is radiant floor heating: it is really lovely to wake up in the morning and walk on a warm floor. The cats like it too.)
I don’t know my neighbors very well. In the other houses I have lived in, I did. I would see them walking their dogs or children. When I lived in Virginia, in a split-level house with a huge from window, I would sit and watch the kids play in the front yards of my house and the house next door. I knew the people next door — my kid used to stray into their yard. I really enjoyed living in that house.
Of course, I am shy by nature. My neighborhood is pretty good in trying to foster relationships between neighbors: there is a neighborhood mailing list, not to mention the bi-annual ice cream socials.
I liked having a porch. There was something welcoming about a porch and a large front window. It invites the world in, rather than determinedly shutting it out. If you have tendencies to be sort of a loner (who, me?) it helps foster a sense of connectedness with the outside world.
I could use that a lot of time.