Gated Communities Flourish - Offline and Online

In his classic 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson wrote about autonomous gated communities. He called them burbclaves, a contraction of "suburban enclave". These communities were described as being virtually separate countries, with their own private police forces and restrictive rules. In his novel Neuromancer, William Gibson wrote about cyberspace, a matrix of information in which the pathways were public, but a lot of the information was walled off by corporate security. These similar patterns of restriction can be seen in the real offline and online worlds.

In the real world, gated communities are rapidly gaining popularity - and not just among the wealthy. According to the author of Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, the middle class is accepting the idea quickly. About 40% of new homes in California are behind walls; most subdivisions approved by Palm Beach County, Florida in the past five years are gated.


(From the inside, you can't see the gates)

According to the Census Bureau, in the 2001 American Housing Survey:

  • More than 7 million households about 6% of the national total are in developments behind walls and fences. About 4 million of that total are in communities where access is controlled by gates, entry codes, key cards or security guards.
  • Homeowners in gated communities live in upscale and mostly white developments. But renters, who are more ethnically diverse and less affluent, are nearly 21/2 times as likely as homeowners to live behind gates or walls.
  • Whether they own or rent, Hispanics are more likely to live in such communities than whites or blacks. That may be partly because there is a large Hispanic population in the West and Southwest, areas with the largest concentration of gated communities.
  • Affluent African-American homeowners are less likely to live in gated communities than whites and Hispanics, even in metro areas such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., which have a large black middle class. Experts theorize that after centuries of exclusion, blacks may be reluctant to embrace such a lifestyle or to live in predominantly white developments.

People who live in gated communities seek different things; security, privacy, maintaining the value of homes in controlled neighborhoods. Sociologists and demographers are concerned about the effect of people walling themselves off from each other, isolating people from public life. What do you think?

Meanwhile, in the real virtual world of our public Internet (if that makes sense), the 'net in which information is free seems to be diminishing as large commercial concerns gradually wall data off from those who are not willing to pay to enter their gated online communities. Some content is entirely free (like this site); others, like the New York Times, give free access for a limited time, and then charge per article for researchers. In a recent unpleasant development, one of my favorite science sites, NewScientist, has become a "gated" site in which you must pay to access full article content. Here is William Gibson's description of public and private network space:

He closed his eyes.
Found the ridged face of the power stud.
And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information...
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding --
And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

In Neuromancer, data is protected with ICE - intrusion countermeasures electronics. Passwords and other access controls are used in the real Internet. One of my biggest concerns is that a democracy depends on free flow of information, so citizens can inform themselves and make better decisions, both when voting and making purchases. Making the best data available only to those who can afford to pay will inhibit this system. Mergers between megacorporations combined with changes to copyright law that favors corporations will put more of our common culture behind digital walls - where only those who can afford it will have access. What do you think?

Read more at Gated communities more popular, and not just for the rich and an older (but still good) article at CNET - Gated communities on the horizon. Thanks also to a metafilter post I discovered in my referrer logs. John Brunner's excellent 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider provides a classic description of information restriction on a "public" network.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 12/31/2004)

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