DARK AGE AHEAD

By Jane Jacobs. Random House. 241 pp. $23.95

These days it's hard to argue with Jane Jacobs's title. Many people can scarcely bring themselves to look at the front page of the newspaper. Global politics appear to be little more than a numbing series of atrocities, in one place or another. The new information economy, which was to foster a worldwide community, has brought us assault-viruses that can send the economy into sudden collapse, granted governments and corporations unequalled access to our most cherished privacies, transformed our children into addicted game-playing zombies and encouraged every sort of con artist, porno purveyor and spammer to insult our intelligence and sensibilities. Long ago, television was regarded as a cultural wasteland -- but the 1950s and '60s now look like a happy golden age, when reality shows and someone named Paris Hilton were hardly a gleam in anyone's eye. In cities like Washington, urban life has largely degenerated into calculating how long it will take to travel a Beltway that is perennially at a standstill or where to park the car once you reach the Mall. Our citizens weep at the idea that they can possibly flee downtown and save their lives should a serious disaster occur. Commuter traffic grinds to a standstill here if it snows an inch, sometimes even if it rains hard.

On second thought, Jane Jacobs's title is wrong. The Dark Age isn't ahead, it's here and now. There's an even Darker Age a-coming.

Or not. Doom-sayers and pessimists are always with us, but so are activists, reformers and visionaries. Jane Jacobs -- the doyenne of urban thinkers, author of the classic Death and Life of Great American Cities -- is here to proffer her thoughts on how we might solve or avoid some of the problems that bedevil our modern lives. "The purpose of this book," she writes, "is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end." As she sees it, there are "five pillars" that our society depends on to stand firm and that are nonetheless being eaten up by decay. These five are: 1) "community and family," 2) "higher education," 3) "the effective practice of science and science-based technology," 4) "taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possiblities," and 5) "self-policing by the learned professions."

These might not be the pillars that other sociologists or cultural observers would focus on, but they do allow Jacobs to hammer home, yet again, her views about contemporary life. For instance, in the chapter on families, she writes, "Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities. Highways and roads obliterate the places they are supposed to serve." How did we come to rely so heavily on cars? She chronicles the 1930s campaign by General Motors to wipe out the clean, efficient street-car system upon which cities then relied. She lays into Robert Moses for the eradication of New York neighborhoods. She stresses how much suburb-dwellers feel disconnected from those around them, including their children. And she doesn't really know how to resolve this ongoing crisis. "I have no idea what kinds of households will emerge to deal with needs that families are at a loss to fill. My intuition tells me they will probably be coercive. This is already true of the most swiftly multiplying and rapidly expanding type of American households at the turn of the millennium -- prisons."

In subsequent pages, Jacobs attacks universities for having abandoned true education in favor of "credentialing," governments for being unresponsive to the actual local needs of the citizens shelling out the tax dollars, corporations and accountants for succumbing to a culture of laissez-faire criminality, "plausible denial" and image over substance. She even shows how supposedly hard-headed engineers and planners rely on theories rather than look at realities. Why, for instance, did so many old people die during a hot spell in Chicago? Investigators reported that it was because the elderly failed to heed warnings to keep cool, drink plenty of water, etc., etc. But why then did one urban area suffer so many more deaths than its neighbors?

"In North Lawndale," writes Jacobs, summarizing the research of NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, "where the death rate was so high, elderly people were not accustomed to walking in their district because there was almost nothing for them to walk to. It was a commercial and social desert, almost devoid of stores and other gathering places. Old people were thus unacquainted with storekeepers who could welcome them into air-conditioned space. They were afraid, too, to leave their apartments, for fear they would be burglarized while they were out. For the same reason, they feared strangers who came to check on them. In crisis they were behaving as they always did in this place with no functioning community."

No functioning community. That is, finally, the gist of it. Universities treat students as raw materials on an assembly line, businessmen disdain their investors and customers (not to mention their honor), federal governments refuse to adjust for the needs of very different communities and impose "one size fits all" regulations, and all along we fail to foster the civilized standards expected by our forebears.

But what shall we do? What shall we ever do?

Dark Age Ahead is witty and damning, but it is also rambling and finally rather vague. Jacobs sometimes hopes that simply drawing her readers' attention to various problems may initiate a response to them. But her examples tend to reinforce the common view that life has grown so complex that it is often impossible to calculate the effects, whether for good or ill, of any change. In her last pages she makes a plea that we encourage and foster an abundance of those mentors and nurturers who actually create community through their jobs, hobbies and lives: "storytellers, skilled tradespeople and craftspeople, musicians, bird-watchers and other nature hobbyists, artists, adventurers, feminists, cosmopolitans, poets, volunteers and activists, chess players, domino players, moralists, life-taught and book-taught philosophers." These are the people who enrich our souls, sometimes in invisible ways, the people who pass on cultural values and memories to the young. So much of modern American life revolves around glitz and stardom, around money, status, sex appeal and power. And yet, if we pause and imagine the kind of place we would like to grow up in, the kind of place we'd like to live, doesn't it look a lot like Jacobs's vision, no matter how utopian or old-fashioned it may seem?

"A society must be self-aware. Any culture that jettisons the values that have given it competence, adaptability, and identity becomes weak and hollow." Well, it's hard to disagree with Jane Jacobs, even in a digressive, unfocused book like this one. For Dark Age Ahead is certainly worth reading and thinking about. I wish I felt it would make a difference, do some good, actually shake us out of what seems to me the dominant spirit of the age: Sauve qui peut -- Every man for himself. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.