What might Jane Jacobs observe about trust among neighbors in an age of digital distraction?
3 min read

What might Jane Jacobs observe about trust among neighbors in an age of digital distraction?

The following is a guest post from Austin Gohn, a friend and fellow urban ministry colleague. Austin is a pastor in Pittsburgh and a student at Trinity School of Ministry. His writing has been featured in Gospel Centered Discipleship.

Eyes on the Screen

Trust is built thirty-seconds at a time.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.” With her classic specificity, the patron saint of sidewalks explains some of these little contacts that add up to a sense of trust:

It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to two little boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat varied. (56)

Although “eying the girls” might have the opposite effect now, Jacob’s observation is still true. Trust is the byproduct of petting the neighbor’s German Shepherd, explaining the “parking chair” to a new tenant from a warmer climate, asking Abby what she is drawing on the sidewalk this afternoon, and giving out high-quality Halloween candy to costume-less teenagers. It is not developed in a single moment but rather in many, many little interactions over many months and years.

In 1961, though, the personal screen was still years away from its monopoly on our attention. We were still over two decades away from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I doubt Jane Jacobs foresaw that there would one day be more eyes on the screen than eyes on the street.

In 2017, while I might have a few moments like those she describes, I sacrifice many more of those little contacts to my most recent notification. When I walk down the street, I check anything on my iPhone when I am about to pass someone. At the post office around the corner, I read tweets from people all over the world instead of talking to the other dozen people in line. (In my defense, they are all distracted as well.) At the local Do-It-Best, I ask Siri for help on my home project while pretending I don’t hear the employee asking me if I need assistance. On the first warm spring evening, I continue my binge on Arrested Development season one instead of risking conversation by sitting on my porch.

Most of these moments are “ostensibly trivial” (Jacobs, 56). Reloading Instagram a few times instead of making eye contact with the cashier at Kuhn’s Quality Foods does not seem like it will make much of a difference. Tossing a few of these relational pennies into the wishing well of distraction feels harmless. Everyone knows pennies never add up to anything.

According to Jacobs, though, these pennies are “the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow” (72). These small exchanges add up to trust among neighbors. Without trust, neighborhoods do not work as they could (or should). The absence of trust is a “disaster” (56) to street life–a daily catastrophe that will never make the local news.  

Trust is one of the silent victims of our digital age. We have exchanged “an almost unconscious assumption” (56) of trust for an unconscious assumption of distrust, and no one has noticed. It is one of those invisible qualities no one thinks about until we need it. It is a loss that everyone feels but almost no one can name.

The good news is that trust is built in the same way as distrust: thirty-seconds at a time. It is never too late to start developing trust among our neighbors. In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle concludes:

This is our nick of time and our line to toe: to acknowledge the unintended consequences of technologies to which we are vulnerable, to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make the corrections. And to remember who we are—creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky, and face-to-face. (362)

This is not as terrifying as it seems. Instead of looking up the time of the Lenten fish fry, try asking the neighbor with the rosary hanging from his rearview mirror. Ask an older person in line at the deli what kind of cheese goes best with capicola (even if you do not care). Purchase some overpriced lemonade from the kids next door instead of pretending you’re on the phone. These things feel trivial, but as Jacobs reminds us, “the sum is not trivial at all” (56).

In a cultural moment when distrust is the norm, perhaps what we need most is a willingness to turn off our phones and talk to our neighbors again — even if it’s just for thirty-seconds.

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