I often think that, in Fairbanks, I must be seen as some kind of pervert.
At a recent work meeting about re-visioning our reference services, we were asked to describe our ideal reference service. I suggested that we should offer, in one place, all the things students would want to hunker down and study: not only computers and books, but comfortable chairs and couches, spaces for group work, all the software students would probably need already installed on the computers (they currently lack even basic office applications), video viewing rooms, and a coffee bar with drinks and quality baked goods. (In the library world, such an environment is known as an information commons or a learning commons.)
“But you could have all that at home,” said one of my colleagues. “If you can sit in front of the fireplace with your laptop and your coffee, why would you want to come to the library?”
“Because not everybody is a misanthrope,” I snipped, “and many people actually enjoy the company of others.”
My colleague’s suggestion exemplifies what I see as a faulty rationalism at play not only in the planning of Fairbanks, but working in corporate planning of services and in people’s selection of services. She has taken all the elements that she perceives as significant — computer, Internet access, comfortable furniture, available food, and the options to watch videos and to work with others — and decided that, since an individual can have all these things in his or her own home, and since home will (presumably) be more comfortable than an institutional building, and will also allow one to play music, drink beer, and stroll around naked, any reasonable person would choose to study there rather than in a necessarily shared space that comes with some greater restriction.
The unstated assumption in this thinking is that human company — at least, the unpredictable presence of other people who are not always chosen — is not worth anything. The rationalist reasons, “If I wanted company, I would invite to my house (or to some neutral location) the people I wish to see. Anybody else would be a detriment, or at least a distraction.”
This reasoning overlooks a few things:
- The cost of a shared resource is usually less, and is often vastly less, than the cost of supplying that resource to each individual that might use it. A case in point: in my job, I occasionally use Adobe Photoshop. The version I use is currently priced at $999. To purchase enough copies to be installed on every single campus computer — or even just every staff and faculty computer — would be prohibitively expensive. I just can’t imagne how much it would cost. Fortunately, the University doesn’t have to buy that many copies of the software. Instead, they buy a site licence that allows them up to 100 concurrent users. Perhaps they paid $99,900, but more likely they pay a much smaller annual fee so that all UAF-affiliated persons, while on site, can use the software. I certainly could not afford it on my own. Many people cannot afford their own personal computers, VHS or DVD players, and espresso machines — but those things can be shared in a neutral third place. If either the public library or my own workplace offered fancy-pants espresso drinks and tasty pastries (on site, mind you, not in a nearby building), I’d probably hang out there a lot more.
- While, in principle, all the features of the learning commons can be had in the home — if you have enough money — the isolation of home makes it unlikely that you’ll get them all as frequently there as at some shared place that can offer them all easily. Sure, you can drive out to get a latte and a muffin — but are you really going to warm your car up when it’s twenty below, then drive ten or fifteen minutes each way, to get them? Chances are, you’ll go without. Similarly, you can invite all your collaborators on a project to your house. But then you have to keep a clean house, provide refreshments, and (hardest, I think) invite people you may not like very well into what is supposed to be your sanctum, where they get to see just how you live, and from which they may not leave when you think the time is right. Guests are necessarily intrusive, and not everybody welcomes them; people will often choose to go without company at all rather than invite relative strangers into the intimacy of their homes. In the learning commons — and in public space generally — you can have company as long as both of you are interested; then it’s very easy to part and find privacy again.
- One of the chief benefits of good public space is its unpredictability: you do not know exactly whom you’ll meet there. Those of a rational bent believe that they are (1) aware of all their social needs and (2) able to meet those needs through their own deliberate planning. They know who the required people are, and forced contact with any others is an inconvenience. This thinking resembles what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism” — a belief that the health value of food can be reduced to its nutrients. It assumes that (1) all of a food’s nutrients can be known; (2) a diet that ignores whole foods but includes all the (known) nutrients of natural food can be equally healthy as one based on whole foods (mostly plants); and (3) equipped with knowledge of the necessary nutrients, people will choose correctly and meet their nutritional needs. The chief problem is that food is complex and not that easily reduced: we don’t know all the nutrients contained in natural food, and various attempts to reduce the human diet to the essential nutrients have resulted in poorer health, not better. What’s more (me speaking, not Pollan), real food is tastier and more interesting than nutrients: for example, would you rather take vitamin C tablets, or snack on some red peppers and guava? The human soul is also complex, and its needs are not so reliably known. Surely one human need is privacy. Another need is society — but it cannot be reduced to a series of planned exchanges with preferred parties. The chance to meet unexpected people — many of whom we barely know and some of whom we may dislike — is good for us. It improves our social skills and broadens our sympathies. And it’s just more interesting.
When I talk about corporate planning of services and people’s selection of services, I’m saying that they share this flaw. When shopping is viewed merely as a means of buying goods, then comfort, aesthetics, and human interaction don’t matter any more. So corporations are free to create drive-in mega-stores free of any beauty and uninviting to those who would loiter and socialize. When people view restaurants merely as outlets for tasty food, then take-out becomes as good as dining in. So people deprive themselves of the chance to enjoy a meal with ambiance, good conversation, and human variety.
As I said at the beginning, I often suspect that Fairbanksans think I’m some kind of pervert. The desire to escape from human society — say, to one’s cabin in the middle of a twenty-acre wilderness — is more pervasive here than I’ve seen anywhere else. Or perhaps it’s not the desire that’s abnormal here, but the opportunity. Land is cheap and plentiful in the Fairbanks area, as I’m sure it once was all across the American West, so Fairbanks attracts those who wish to make a reality out of their dream of avoiding unexpected human company.
But as for me — give me some more of that guava.