Mobile Internet and Public Space

January 22, 2013 By Mason Smith

The last several years have witnessed the internet hop from our desktop and into our lap, and from our lap straight into our palms. With Project Glass, Google assures us that the internet will soon be sitting on our face. As The Economist’s recent special report on technology and geography cites, the volume of mobile data traffic in 2017 will be 21 times greater than it was last year.

By now most urbanites have experienced firsthand the merits of mobile internet connectivity. We can predict the arrival of the next train to the minute and can easily locate nearby restaurants to sate any culinary desire. We can check in for flights, reroute our drive according to snarled traffic, or order the otherwise belated mother’s day bouquet – all while on the go. No matter your desire, “there’s an app for that.” The digital world is increasingly shaping how we move through, interpret, and interact with the physical world, but at what cost?

A sign from the Tokyo subway, advising against cell phone use

Mobile internet connectivity challenges our engagement with our immediate physical surroundings. Unknowingly, we find ourselves absorbed in our personal screens with blinders raised to the people and activity around us. We’re regularly and subtly forced to choose whether to explore the sites, smells, and sounds that surround us or to refresh the screen in the digital world. A recent Atlantic Cities article cites part of a study that asked smartphone users to recall details of places and the people therein they had visited just ten minutes prior. The memories of the smartphone users were impaired which, as the articles suggests, may mean they weren’t paying attention in the first place. As individuals, we only have so much bandwidth, as they say.

After a spell in the newness of this type of connectivity, I envision a future that draws us back towards physical reality. Policy and design of the built environment should preempt and encourage this shift. And as our dependence on smartphones and tablets is unlikely to diminish, these policies and designs should consider how best to incorporate these devices while mitigating their threat for distraction.

Efforts towards accommodating the rise of mobile internet technology are already sprouting in the private sector. In an effort to discourage mealtime disruptions, a restaurant in Los Angeles offers a 5% discount to its customers who choose to check their phones at the door. Similarly, an Oakland-based group called The Digital Detox hosts tech-free weekend retreats at Northern Californian hot springs to encourage people to reconnect with life’s natural rhythms.

Leaders in the planning community should take inspiration and build on the ideas brewing in the private sector. We should think deeply about how to create spaces that encourage people to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with our immediate physical surroundings and with each other. Creating “cool spots,” or internet-free areas, is a promising vehicle towards providing refuge from the digital inundation. One form these cool spots could take is that of a small section of a public space sheltered by a permanent canopy that would disenable patrons from going online. The canopy would double as a shade structure and could even play host to greenery or otherwise enhance the physical environment. Dedicating the entirety of a space as internet-free – in a pocket park for example – would make the experience in traditional reality even more immersive.

Another alternative to help reengage people with their surroundings is a social agreement to go internet-free upon entering a designated space during a certain time. San Francisco regularly hosts car-free Sundays along certain streets within Golden Gate Park, which gives rise to a more pedestrian-centric use of the streets. The event has grown to become generally accepted and even expected as a weekly ritual. In a similar vein, public initiatives could promote periods of time in specified public places that are designated in advance as internet or device-free zones. Enforcing disuse of mobile internet devices should be avoided. Rather, a widely supported social agreement combined with the pleasant contagion of going device-free would uphold the new expectations around the use of the space. Reliance on this social agreement would also reduce the need for capital investment and would allow the idea to scale almost infinitely. Security considerations would need to be made, however, as people have understandably grown to rely on mobile connectivity in the case of a potential emergency. Reuse of the space towards a device-free environment wouldn’t require a change to the built environment in this case, but rather a shift in priority away from the virtual and back to the physical.

From our laps, palms, faces, and beyond, the rise of the mobile internet challenges the planning community to reconcile the built and virtual environments. We would be wise to soon address how to accommodate the mobile internet during these years of its formative adolescence.

Mason Smith is a graduate of UC Berkeley where he studied Political Science and Global Poverty and Practice as an undergraduate. Mason's primary interests are tactical urbanism and complete streets design. He can be reached at