Sidewalks of the Mind


December 2, 2004


Browse in Commons

Sidewalks are one of the greatest human inventions, and one of the most unappreciated as well. They provide a means of walking, meeting, transporting, vending, and disseminating information in the way that is probably is closest to what the framers of the First Amendment actually had in mind. Just about the entire life of a city takes place on or through sidewalks. At any given hour, people are using them to go to shop, gawk, play ball, mail a letter, meet the object of their affections. All this and more for a minimal amount of upkeep and expense.

It would have been possible, I suppose, for the designers of our cities and towns to deem sidewalks a form of socialism, and the first domino in the row. First the sidewalks, then the homes and businesses to which they lead. It would have been possible to privatize the sidewalks, erect toll booths at every block, build walls so people couldn’t sneak on and off through someone’s yard.

It would have been possible, but our cities and our lives would not have been the better for it. Commons are a form of social lubrication. Some things must be free for the rest of life to function smoothly. That includes the market. Free sidewalks in a city bring customers to the merchant’s door. Free information in the library feeds invention that becomes new enterprise. The commons feeds the market and the market feeds the commons; without the merchants, the sidewalks would be empty, as Wall Street used to be on week-ends before the opening of the South Street Seaport nearby. Pure symbiosis.

Which brings me to WiFi, and the recent decision of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to cave to Big Telecom and stymie the efforts of cities in that state to provide free WiFi within their borders. (Philadelphia, which already was far along, got a pass.) WiFi is a sidewalk of the information age. It is a means of connection, not the content of it — a way to get someplace to transact whatever business or pleasure the user has in mind. If a city can provide concrete sidewalks, then why can’t it provide electronic ones? What’s the hang-up here? Free WiFi is not a step to socialized business, any more than free sidewalks on Wall Street are a step towards a socialized state. Free sidewalks mean more business, not less, for enterprises that connect to them.

Rendell’s toadying to telecom is especially sad when one considers the proud history of his state in furthering the information commons. Benjamin Franklin was both a prominent citizen of Philadelphia and a big advocate of public postal service, and public libraries as well. He was postmaster for the colonies before the Revolution. As Paul Starr describes in his recent book The Creation of the Media, the U.S. Postal Service played a major role in the rise of the nation’s newspapers. The Post Office Act of 1792 provided a postal rate — asubsidized rate — of one cent for newspapers sent 100 miles or less. The rate went up to 1.5 cents for distances beyond that. (George Washington and Benjamin Rush thought that newspaper delivery should be free.)

This was no small thing. America was a predominantly rural nation, and a large portion of newspaper subscribers lived out of town. As late as the 1830s, about a quarter of newspaper subscribers in the U.S. were getting their papers through the mail. On top of that, under the 1792 Act, newspapers could exchange subscriptions for free, and this promoted the growth of an information web that eventually became news services such as the Associated Press. Starr contrasts this with such countries as Britain, which levied a stamp tax on newspapers and thereby limited them to the rich.

It was a commons that made the rise of mass media possible in the U.S. Writing, newspapers, communication all flourished because of a form of inexpensive sidewalk called the Postal Service that was open to all. Now the telecom industry wants to build toll gates at the street corners, and politicians such as Ed Rendell are helping them. The historical line from Ben Franklin to Governor Ed Rendell is not an upward one.