“Man’s population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man’s intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits.”

Doug Englebart, 1962


“So much of everyday life and leisure now takes place in secluded spaces. The front porch sessions with neighbors and passersby that once epitomized American social life have given way to more private gatherings on the backyard deck, or time with the television and other screens indoors. These changes lessen the chance for happenstance conversation with neighbors and strangers.”

Anand Pandian


These days technology is the most common punching bag for all of societal woes. Today I will steer our punching toward, well, us – people.

Ryan Gravel has a new talk on people’s relationship with land which got me thinking about the micro choices, personal, that people make with regard to their land and how it ultimately effects the macro level (society and all its trappings). So let me talk about something simple, front yard to backyard, to discuss something complex. As individuals, homeowners, there has been a migration from the front yard to the backyard.

As we discuss individuals, lets discuss communities. Since the dawn of time people have chosen to build and be part of communities. It’s not just a survival decision; it is psychologically and sociologically beneficial. We may choose to have some alone time, but not many people choose to be alone all the time and being part of a community was a shared experience enhancing beliefs of collectivism (in some form or fashion) and being part of something bigger than just ‘self.’ In the past a home may have been your own ‘castle,’ but you were in and of the community every time you stepped out of your door. This relationship defined many aspects of who and what we became as people. Everything from security to well being was, in part, a shared value creation model. But that connectivity has been disrupted as our emphasis has shifted from front yard openness to backyard closedness. So, as we reflect upon increased small crimes (home burglary), increased sense of loneliness, increased tribalism, increased sense of zero-sum of the ‘commons’ and decreased belief in collective good, maybe we should reflect upon how we engage with community because it shapes our relations with others. To be clear, in this piece I am drawing a stark line between being a front porch community and a backyard people.

Think about what has happened as we migrated from front to back.

While you can watch the world go by from the front porch, no one goes past the backyard. We just don’t enter other people’s backyard uninvited. The front porch, and people in a front yard, naturally encourages someone from the outside world to interact, if not even stop, while the backyard is defined by privacy. This gets, psychologically, a bit deeper. The backyard encourages us to look inward, to enjoy what we have, by ourselves, and – as people do – make some comparisons. And then, in addition, as we moved to backyards we increasingly left signals out front as to who we ‘were’ which inevitably sends signals of who would be welcome in the backyard. For example, the American flag has taken on some odd significance. It has been appropriated to not actually depict patriotism, but rather some skewed beliefs as to what patriotism is (this, as a consequence, led to people who actually loved the country to stop showing their love because they feared they would be caught in the signaling they didn’t desire). There are Black Lives Matter signs, support the local elementary school signs, political signs, all joining the ever present security service signs. Any variety of signaling which dumbed down an entire house into some simplistic “they are those type of people.” My point is that not only have we cocooned ourselves , but many have doubled down by signaling their cocoon tribe. Needless to say, that’s not exactly a general welcome mat.

Look. It may sound nostalgic, but front porch gatherings with neighbors once epitomized American social life. Children played in front yards and strangers were more easily accepted because everyone was in the front yards to insure no one felt an isolated risk. Who was in your front yard was the sign of community and ‘collective social norms’. With an ever-increasing shift to backyards, even enclosed spaces, we have not only decreased open community interaction but it even decreases random interactions and conversations (even with daily contacts like mail people and deliveries). It even decreases interactions with the community, neighborhood, in its totality. We have become self-selecting machines in which the openness of front yards has become closedness of backyards.

Which leads me to fear and suspicion.

I am not sure if this front-to-back shift facilitated increased acceptance of fear and suspicion or increased fear and suspicion facilitated the shift, but my guess is the former more than the latter. But by doing so an indirect consequence was no longer ‘looking outward’ and seeing a variety of people interacting which inevitably increased fear of ‘intrusion into our bubbles.’ People outside our backyards became potential intruders (Peter Gabriel). In fact, one out of every six American houses in a residential community is secured now by community walls or fences.

“a line in the sand between your family and an uncertain world.”

Home security company ADT

This fortress mentality has some interesting, unfortunate, consequences. As we retreat farther and farther away from the larger community, we only come out to attack. What I mean by that is if your exclusive backyard tribe feels threatened, you begin going to school board meetings, town hall meetings and other gatherings only to express your displeasure. The problem (among many) is that you have become farther out of touch of the larger collective community as you have become more in touch with your own personal opinions/beliefs/attitudes. You isolate farther by withdrawing from local clubs, certain community events, any community activity, even some churches, because your ‘community’ is now, well, in your backyard. We have lost what Robert Putnam called co-mingling which is where the foundation of an American “we are one nation,” through religious organizations and hundreds of other societies, organizations, and groups, was borne. To be clear. All of America has embraced this ‘retreat mentality’ as almost a feature of capitalism. Bottled water killed public drinking fountains, specialization killed generalization (in youth sports, hobbies, etc.), and, well, it seems like business is intent on creating new products and ideas solely to feed into less social connectivity. Suffice it to say business has elected to make the world one long tail where no one enjoys gathering at the head.

One of the less innovative items business has become quite creative in persuading people to buy is, uhm, walls. While walls have become increasingly attractive to people, literally they build moats from ‘other people’ as well as uncomfortable ideas.  This makes it more difficult to take unfamiliar people and perspectives seriously; harder to acknowledge the needs of strangers, to trust their motives and empathize with their struggles. They become less ‘people’ and simply “thems” (to resent and mistrust). “Thems” are, well, outsiders in a world in which I have mine and they have theirs. This is important because it sets up a perceived conflict of interest – those who belong and those who do not. this ‘belonging’ aspect very quickly becomes a conflict of values which can almost become an unresolvable tribal conflict. The separation between the front yard (where engagement is less intrusive) versus backyard (you have entered into the fortress) creates a chasm of thought. Cocooning of the tribe has the effect of conforming behavior which ratchets up to conforming attitudes and conforming mindsets. Simplistically, if someone is perceived to be ‘of the cocoon’ they are allowed in your personal fortress. Your backyard – physically and metaphorically.

“You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall.”

James Baldwin

Which leads me to we have become less interesting as people because of this migration.

“The needless variety of fronts presented by the better class of tenements and apartment houses in our cities is an endless variety of architectural distress…Considered as objects of beauty, the dead walls of the sides and back of these structures, left untouched by the hands of the artist, are commonly the best feature of the building.”

Thorstein Veblen

Everything, and every person, is part of interconnected, interdependent systems, and we are all affected by, and in turn, influencing them. The truth is our lives, perceptions and reality, are shaped by our history of interactions – with our environment and other people. The history of interactions provides us an opportunity to generate correlations that we can assign meanings to from which we can not only broaden our view but, well, become more interesting as a human. Simplistically, less interaction equals less interesting. Yeah. Just because Joe, who you always invite into your backyard, is smart and interesting, doesn’t mean you will broaden your own views and become more interesting if all you have is a boatload of interactions with Joe.

Which brings me back to where Ryan Gravel started this entire thing – use, abuse and protection of land.

Land is at the mercy of people. How it is used, what is built, what is protected and what is not protected is all dependent upon people. I start there because while technology is a punching bag, government and regulations is often the punching bag on how land is used or not used. I will note that government offers lots of money to a lot of people to build things. I will also note if something is not actually built its usually because of people. The system, permits, land use, development guidelines, have all been designed by people. If we are honest about that, most regulations are created with good intent and there is some expectation that the system, and rules, are used with good intent. And that’s where things go a bit wrong. If you are one of the 60+% people who own a home, that ‘castle/fortress’ is a mixed bag of wealth investment and personal investment. So, much of that 60+% are going to use the broad menu of environmental laws and regulations to keep things from being built that could intrude on what they feel they own (surrounding space, scenery, transit options, etc.). It is a self-interest option to keep the collective world from changing. This gets compounded by neighborhoods/tribes of self-interest (like minded communities) which unapologetically not only value Us over Them, but believe ‘our’ value interests are more important than any collective value interest. And then there are the self interest groups who are intent on protecting the land. Simplistically, just as I pointed out earlier specifically about the backyard and tribes, people are fighting tooth & nail to preserve what exists. I imagine my point here is not only are we, the people, closing ourselves off from other people and other views, but we are increasingly closing ourselves off from the future. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the more we retreat, the more likely we will be defeated – sociologically as well as civilization-wise as well as environmentally-wise. I do believe people’s lives, and investments, deserve to be protected just as I believe land should be protected, but at some point, we need to make a grand bargain amongst ourselves that isn’t solely driven by money and power and more driven by what we all will collectively gain from. In the end, the tragedy of commons is a tragedy of selfishness, a failure of individuals to put us ahead of me. Only people can solve this.

The good news is there are people fighting back.

People use regulations properly, communities embrace collective interests and local governments are beginning to craft places for walking, biking and outdoor life, and creating new ways of sharing public space with people. Even “live, work, play” concepts are a version of ‘increased connectivity’ initiatives. There is a concerted effort to recapture social connectivity. That said. If you want to be reminded how difficult this seemingly widely accepted objective is, just take a look at the backlash to micromobility (Future of Urban Transit) – what do you mean give up my car! – and the 15 minute city concept. We have a long way to go to get back to a ‘front yard mentality,’ and this is where technology does play a role. It amplifies all the psychological foibles which encourage people to stay in backyards, build walls, have a fortress mentality and encourage a zero-sum view on home wealth and security. Not only is this bad for social mental health, its bad for social connectivity, it makes people less interesting and, frankly, less able to become interesting. Life is too short to not want to find out what is interesting, so maybe more of us should be fighting our way out of the backyards. Maybe we should knock down some walls and try building bridges to each other and to the future. This is clearly a problem technology did not create nor is it a problem technology can solve. This is a people problem with a people solution. Ponder.

Written by Bruce