Episode 383: The Most Genuine Fake

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle our Halloween experiences using the tools of social science to analyze land use, urbanism, and counter-cultural authenticity.

otip-logo-podcastonePeter Fenzel, Mark Lee, Ryan Sheely, and Matt Wrather overthink their Halloween experiences using the tools of social science to analyze land use, urbanism, and counter-cultural authenticity.


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4 Comments on “Episode 383: The Most Genuine Fake”

  1. fenzel OTI Staff #

    So, I never quite fully sussed out my thoughts about that Vox article. So here’s a bulleted rundown, some of which is in the podcast –

    – Families don’t just get cars because of social pressure and expectation. Babies can’t walk, for one.

    – There are a lot more cars in cities and car ownership and/or leasing is more necessary even in walkable cities for a lot of people than the author thinks, even in Germany, which has about 600 cars per 1000 people, compared to 800 cars per 1000 people in the U.S.). The #1 determinant in car ownership (as opposed to amount of driving) is not city or housing design, but whether you can afford a car and the availability of financing (for example, there are only about 300 cars per 1000 people in Russia, which one might think is much less walkable in general than the U.S. or Germany). I’d conjecture that the lower car ownership rates in American cities is not so much a product of their walkability, but of their entrenched poverty and the high debt load of their inhabitants for other reasons, and that as larger parts of cities become more affluent places to live, car ownership will also go up, whether there is ample parking or not.

    – The author doesn’t bring up hobbies, public events, or third places like bars or coffee shops as possible ways to get into unplanned spontaneous social interactions with people and thus make friends.

    – The author also doesn’t go into the rise in violence and other social problems that can pop up when you cram too many people into too small a space – or when you and your children have to deal with a concentrated police presence every day – even though I’m perhaps more sensitive to this than most because of personal experience.

    – Also, there are other factors in the planning of housing other than the configuration of the number of units and the presence of driveways and cars that can affect social interaction – the availability and safety of parks and green space, shared amenities for developments or communities like gyms and pools, or simply the weather – and the use of porches versus air conditioning, for example.

    – The study the guy cites is from the mid-90s, and Bowling Alone was published in 2000 from an article written in 1995. Robert Putnam was optimistic that social capital development and utilization in the United States would at some point revert toward the mean – that the circumstances that led to adult social isolation in the 90s would not last forever.

    I’m not convinced that nothing important has changed in adult friendships since the 90s. For one, for all the discussion of how people have friends in college, but not after college, we could take the movie The Social Network at its word, that things like Facebook have brought at least part of the social experience of college to the broader population.

    Certainly there has been a ton of new social self-organization in the United States since the 90s – tons of niche groups, nice interests, niche political parties, niche political identities – people seem to be associating in a lot of new ways that they didn’t used to (you could go back to my “Juggalo Theory of Value” article for some discussion of the social economics of the rise of community and the decline of centralized distribution as organizing principles in this time frame).

    A lot of it is uncomfortable – there’s a lot of secretive stuff, a lot of sexual cruising of various sorts even by married people, a lot of dangerous political movements like the anti-vaxxers or various sorts of armed radicals around the world – but even if you’re looking at something like ISIS, the Boston marathon bombings or all the various school shootings. there is at the heart of it usually some sort of unexpected and seemingly random social interaction online that becomes core to what a person does with their time and identity.

    This is just plain not what it was in the 90s. I wonder if the social science has kept up with this (you can also listen to our podcast on “4-channic discourse,” which in retrospect I feel very vindicated about in terms of identifying incipient social trends) – if we can really be said to be so isolated in this connected world, even if the result has been that our associations have run into new obstacles to fulfillment and health, or that isolation has been maybe “hijacked” by various other sorts of relationships – maybe our previous selves might not have thought of what we have now as good things, but they are certainly different.

    Although a lot of it is good as well – I’m definitely much more in touch with all the other Overthinking It folks than I would have been if we were at this age in the 90s.

    And of course there’s the whole “economy of experiences” – where people are nowadays much more likely to pay for things to do than things to own. That’s a pretty big change, and it would seem to have an effect on all this as well.

    Anyway, maybe that was the biggest thing I wanted to say that I didn’t necessarily get to say on the podcast. The article – and the most-cited literature on these trends – is predicated on assuming that social trends from the 90s have not changed. And I think maybe they have – that maybe people took action to change their social circumstances without the kind of housing and transportation interventions that this guy is talking about – because social needs are pretty urgent and powerful and won’t wait for however many decades it takes to design a subway where you don’t have to be touched by strangers or a bus system that doesn’t smell like vomit, despair and diesel soot.


  2. Lholcombe #

    Interesting discussion. I just moved from a suburban neighborhood in a small city to a commercial neighborhood in a large city. I live close enough to a Whole Foods to walk there, but I never do. My apartment complex has hundreds of units, but I haven’t spoken to any of my neighbors yet. And we all tend to ignore each other in the halls. Choosing to live in close proximity to other humans does not necessarily mean you want anything to do with those humans. I’m personally not much of a say-hi-to-strangers person, and no amount of sprawl or density is going to change that.

    One thing Pete said that I think should be mentioned again – there aren’t just two kinds of living environments. Houston urban is not the same as New York urban, and even a single city is composed of multiple flexible neighborhoods, some of which can’t even be clearly demarcated.

    I spent my Halloween in my friend’s spooooky garage, handing out candy and sarcasm. This garage was in an un-dense neighborhood, but a number of accidents of topography and street design make it a relatively easy place for people in that part of town to trick-or-treat. And the fact that so many households in the neighborhood are so welcoming to trick-or-treaters (numerous homes with decorations, front-lawn barbecues, parties, etc), seems to be part of a positive feedback loop that has grown its trick-or-treaters over time. It was a fun experience.

    Finally – I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve always heard that those tiny closet-sized rooms were commuter hotels, for people who had missed the last train to the suburbs, or for people who stayed at work so late that it wasn’t worth a 2-hour train ride home just to come right back again. I was never under the impression that anybody lived long-term in such spaces.


  3. DeanMoriarty #

    I want to add my anecdotal evidence to the urban planning/ friendship discussion.
    I’ve found that in my life, age has a much bigger effect on my friendships than where and how I live.
    I say this because over the past 10 years I’ve lived within easy walking distance of two of my best and oldest friends in two different neighborhoods and at different points in my life.
    When we were in our mid 20’s living (relatively) close together, we spent a lot of time in each other’s apartments. We would go there to play video games, watch TV, just talk B.S. and drink. We would do this because, often unemployed or having little responsibilities we had plenty of time on our hands to just be with each other.
    In our late 20’s we all moved to another neighborhood and our places are even closer together now. In the last month or two, we’ve probably all hung out for about 6 hours total. And that’s mostly because October brings lots of Halloween related parties/activities/hang outs. I think I didn’t see either of them during the entire month of August (a much less event-filled month in my circle of friends).
    The thing is our current neighborhood is very neighborhoody. It’s one of the models of gentrification of LA. I have in fact run into these two friends on the street or in restaurants on many occassions. We rarely stay and talk at when this happens, though, because we’re usually on our way somewhere.
    The other neighborhood was Hollywood, of sad tourist and bar and grossness fame. Walking to and from each other’s apts. was often really unpleasant or even a little scary (this was in the mid 2000’s when Hollywood hadn’t been completely Disneyfied yet and there were still pockets of real people living actually difficult lives). There was also very few places of interest in between our places.
    Going by the idea of ‘land use’ that you’re talking about, my friendships with these two guys should have gotten stronger. But instead we’ve grown somewhat more distant and I no longer see them with anywhere near the kid of regularity that I did before. I have the real sense that my time and energy is spent on other priorities ( and I don’t even have kids). So that even though it’s a 15 minute walk, I rarely see these two friends anymore. And when I do, it’s usually some sort of ‘event’ scheduled ahead of time.
    At the same time, one of the places these two friends and I do see each other regularly is at the house of our friends who had a kid and moved to the suburbs. It’s almost like being forced to set aside the time to drive to Pasadena is a better motivator than the supposed ease of a casual coffee or drink in our neighborhood.
    These friends and I also have the whole niche interest thing that Fenzel mentions. We met in film school, so many of our interactions revolve around movies. But Even this shared interest seems to be becoming a weaker and weaker force for getting us together as we get older.
    What I’m saying is that in my case, at least, the amount of effort my friends and I put into our friendship, and the way that’s changed as we age, has clearly been a much more important factor in my relationships than the kind of urban environment around us.

    And, I just really made myself sad. I’m gonna go call my friends and figure out when we can hang out.


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