07/03/2012 07:38 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

Jammed Together in Real World, We Create Room in Cyberspace

A while back I overheard two homeless men having a row over a choice spot away from the wind.

"This was always my space," one yelled. "No man, it's my space now," the other one replied. A few young, well-dressed people walked by and giggled. "MySpace" as a phrase has a totally different connotation for those who go often online, for it evokes the posh virtual neighborhood where real estate is still plentiful and cheap.

But it is exactly the relationship between MySpace and my space that I have been thinking about of late, living here in downtown San Francisco.

For shrinking along with the size of an average American household, is the American dream of home ownership. Or rather, I should say house ownership. A condo is what most in the middle-class can hope for in a metropolis like San Francisco or New York. I suspect that in another generation or two, American middle-class living space in chic urban centers will look like that of Tokyo's today -- which is to say, the size of a train compartment. That room of one's own, by then, is probably all one is going to get.

A few years ago The New York Times reported that 51 percent of adult women are without a spouse, and the percentage for men is not that far behind. In mega cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, the birth rate is on the steep decline -- having one child or more, after all, could mean sliding from the middle-class to the standard of living of the poor -- a crib in the walk-in closet, garden on the fire escape.

That's why it's no surprise that tiny houses make big news. In Japan recently a small and narrow house was featured worldwide.

Known as micro-houses, according to National Public Radio, "Architects have turned necessity into virtue, vying to design unorthodox and visually stunning houses on remarkably narrow pieces of land."

That trend is begining to take roots in the U.S. Jay Shafer has been making the news for spearheading luxury homes within the 400-500 square foot range, and he lives in one them, quite comfortably.

That the Japanese minimalist style has become the dominant style in the modern world is no fluke, the bonsai the precursor to the microchip, as it were. Bigger was once said to be better, but what's chic and ultra modern today -- what's green and affordable -- is smaller and streamlined.

The laptop takes no space at all, the iPod is the size of one's credit card, the stereo system that once occupied a generous portion of a living room now is so flat and ridiculously thin that you can hardly see it behind the rhododendrons, and the TV that once took too much space on top of the sideboard now hangs on the wall like a mirror.

While it's true for Americans that the average floor space in new homes is larger than 20 years ago, one has to factor in urban sprawl. I could have a sprawling house in the suburbs -- Concord or Vallejo -- I will have to give up my bedroom condo with the Bay Bridge and San Francisco downtown as my backdrop.

I know several people who spend up to four hours commuting a day, but the suburban homes they own come with a front yard and a garden in the back. Their children are reportedly happy, even if they rarely get to see their long-suffering, hard-working parents. There's always a catch: if you want more space you'll likely have to exchange it with your precious time.

Once I read about a young man who was arrested for stealing car batteries to power his high-tech equipment in San Francisco. He lives in a tent with a computer, and cell phone. He is not, he insists, homeless. After all, he has a home page and a job. It's just that instead of spending his hard-earned money on exorbitant rent, he prefers to construct a home for himself on the Internet where a cyberspace community knows him intimately.

There is, I think, bravery about this young man. He is imagining what he wants to get out of life and the classic Ozzie and Harriet version of the suburban house is no longer at its center. Like many members of my generation, he is giving the American Dream a radically new interpretation.

The problem is that for the first time in human history there are more people living in urban areas than rural, and cities have grown like amoeba into mega cities -- so crowded that they have become virtual countries with complex ecosystems unto themselves. Tokyo leads the pack with 31 million residents. Seoul has 23 million, followed by New York and Bombay. No wonder fewer adults are having children. Once a rural necessity, having children in an urban setting is no longer an inevitable part of marriage, nor is marriage an inevitable part of adulthood.

All over the world the rural poor leave open sky and rolling plains to flock to the edge of the metropolis -- they crowd into ramshackle slums in the third world, or one-room units in the first -- and the middle class is clinging to its precious status in the heart of cities by contending with far smaller living spaces than those of previous generations.

One morning on a very crowded bus, I counted 11 people within my immediate view, texting, talking on the cell phone, checking e-mail, listening to iPods. In other words, they were trying to keep the bus from being their only space, their only reality. And what was I doing? I recorded what I observed in my iPhone, of course, with one eye on real space and the other ogling the electronic mirror.

The Harris Poll reported that Americans 18 years and older spent an average of 13 hours a week online, excluding time spent checking e-mail. More are spending time on social networking sites than ever before. In 2050, nervous demographers tell us, there will be 9 billion of us. That's probably why so many of us now, feeling the onset of collective claustrophobia, spend an inordinately amount of our time logging in.

New America editor Andrew Lam is author of "East Eats West; Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in March 2013.