All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like “Should we have couscous with that?” and “I’m on my way to Blockbuster.” They aren’t breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations. There’s no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee. Seclusion, whether in a suite at the Plaza or in a cabin in the Catskills, is comparatively effortless to achieve. Privacy is protected as both commodity and right; public forums are protected as neither. Like old-growth forests, they’re few and irreplaceable and should be held in trust by everyone. The work of maintaining them only gets harder as the private sector grows ever more demanding, distracting, and disheartening. Who has the time and energy to stand up for the public sphere? What rhetoric can possibly compete with the American love of “privacy”?

Jonathan Franzen, “Imperial Bedroom”, in How to Be Alone