In 1977 sociologist Richard Sennett’s landmark book The Fall of Public Man argued that Western societies had over the previous two centuries grown increasingly individualistic and disengaged with civic life–and were the worse for it. In an epilogue to a new 40th anniversary edition, Sennett examines how the Internet affected this phenomenon. Although social media makes our private lives more public, it also makes us more self-absorbed and isolated from fellow citizens. Looking at this in the context of cities, he sees individuals with more ways to connect with one another as well as more reasons not to. Apps turn city navigation, once a haphazard project that often led to fortuitous encounters, into a solo project. And yet Sennett is impressed by cities in Brazil, for instance, that use big data to help communities collectively evaluate how to spend municipal dollars. “The public realm dies in the first sort of smart city,” he writes, “but revives in the second.” It’s up to us which path we take.
This appears in the April 10, 2017 issue of TIME.