Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

An Urban Cup of Coffee

Dateline: 10:26 am October 29, 2012 Filed under:

“You see the problem is communication, too much communication” – Homer Simpson.

A cup of coffee never tasted so delicious. A newspaper never felt so good in my hands or was so interesting. The people passing by on the sidewalk outside the café never looked so good. Navigating those brick sidewalks to discover that cafe, my own two feet never felt so grounded. Finding the café with my own two eyes during a stroll the previous day and remembering it with my own brain never felt so intuitive.

It was this past spring. I was in Cambridge, on the Harvard Campus. I had just emerged from an interesting, opinionated, cutting and funny lecture by Kara Swisher as part of “The Contested City,” hosted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. It was the sort of “sky is falling” lecture aimed at journalists, warning them the old ways of gathering and reporting information were over. Those left behind would not just be dinosaurs but fossils.

I struggle with my own relationship with technology. Obviously you are reading this on my website, perhaps having picked it up on Twitter, for example. Myself, I was late to Twitter. Technology is a wonderful and indispensable tool, but it must be seen as a tool to enhance but not replace lose the ability to experience, sense and feel life for ourselves.

Luckily the Economist’s excellent recent special report on technology and geography called “A Sense of Place – The New Local” clarified several things (be sure to read all articles). It considered a young woman in Dublin, walking through the city, texting and tweeting her boyfriend (probably Sean), passing by a bar (her phone reminds her that her favorite band once played there), and finding a restaurant review online (based on her phone’s knowledge of her past preferences). The Economist explains “the city she sees has been digitally constructed for her” and that we need to be aware of a “filter bubble” whereas our smartphone dictates urban decision-making. How fascinating. I’m willing to bet she missed a few life experiences with her face buried in her phone as well. She may have found Sean and had dinner but may have missed the serendipity cities and life provide.

It is exactly that reaction I had listening to Kara Swisher’s lecture. I don’t want to be turned in to a Google Glasses-wearing cyborg with no ability to make spontaneous and critical decisions. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old urbanist, but back when I was young I was quite adept at finding my way around cities using my feet, heart, brain, nose and lungs. That’s the way a city was and we liked it!

True, just last week I used Opentable on my smartphone to make a diner reservation for me and three colleagues in Denver (not based on my preferences but rather a colleague’s recommendation). Yup, times are a-changin’, but we could have kicked it old school and wandered until we found a place. What is better than rounding a corner and actually smelling the scent of smoked meat or fried dough wafting towards you, lifting you up like in cartoons as you follow your nose towards your next meal? Or wandering a neighborhood in Dublin until you see the familiar Guinness sign hanging off the corner of the pub? Or just exploring? Sometimes you need an answer and you need it now, and for that smartphones are wonderful. But when you it takes the ability away from enjoying human experience and interaction with your world, be aware that it may be too much.

Homer Simpson was right (although a bit out of context) – too much communication can be a bad thing. Like the Economist concludes (much to my relief), “geography still matters.” Thank God! Use the technology but embrace the physical human interaction in your city.

It’s like when Ferris Bueller said “life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” He had no idea what technology was coming in 1986, but that piece of advice is perhaps more relevant than ever. At least once in a while it is important to shut off the phone and find your own way around the city (and life), look around, and smell, taste, touch it, or you might miss it. I’m interested in technology that can help me do practical things in life, and the Economist certainly endorses the myriad ways smartphones and technology can help us. As for my soul, I have to take care of that myself. As the Economist special report says, “You cannot (yet) have a coffee together online.” And so that cup of coffee that tasted so good.

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