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Secondhand Glow
November 3, 2013 9:52 AM   Subscribe

An examination of how near-ubiquitous internet connectivity has reshaped our public spaces and social mores--and what to do about it: "It would be unfair to say [a person consulting her smartphone] isn’t engaged in the city; on the contrary, she may be more finely attuned to neighborhood history and happenings than her companions. But her awareness is secondhand: She misses the quirks and cues of the sidewalk ballet, fails to make eye contact, and limits her perception to a claustrophobic one-fifth of normal. Engrossed in the virtual, she really isn’t here with the rest of us."
posted by Bromius (121 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
It had been about 2+ years since the last time I was in NYC when I went back in this past Spring. Even in that time, the visible increase in signs of wireless connectedness was striking:

--I was there to practice (digital) candid street photography. Unlike previous trips in, I found myself near-invisible...and not just because everyone was looking down: I was essentially using a waist-level finder for most shots (and the camera was pocketable like a Leica) and drawing almost no suspicion (as a photographer or a probable tourist) since EVERYONE was looking down at or fiddling with or drawing in and out of pockets their electronic devices. Walker Evans would not have had to rig up his buttonhole camera for subway shots.

--A sad moment: a couple had staged a small, full-dress wedding near the arch in Washington Park. Wedding party of 8, including bride, groom and minister. They were surrounded by a thick ring of strangers--who, swear to god, were all viewing it through a screen (whether a camera, phone, or tablet) as they scrambled to document it into digital ephemera.
posted by blue suede stockings at 10:02 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the fact that people are bound and determined to force others to be present in the way that they, personally, decree to be best or normal.

Lord have mercy.

It's new technology. We haven't yet figured out all the ways to use it. Give it time. Let's not fuck the future because the present is annoying.
posted by gsh at 10:06 AM on November 3, 2013 [56 favorites]


I anticipate lots of comments lamenting all the barriers created by all of this wireless obsession, and to an extent, I definitely agree.

But I think you can't understate the wonderful benefits of being connected when it comes to exploration and discovery. My parents' generation are often creatures of habit. During my first 25 years of growing up in my home city (Phoenix), all I knew were chain restaurants and the same series of stores and shops. We didn't explore much, and I know I am not alone in this experience.

Today with a smartphone, I know my city far better than I did then. A quick search one day led me to an amazing Jewish bakery that I never would've noticed. I now know a great Salvadoran family who runs a rotisserie chicken shop. I've found one-of-a-kind family stores that I never would've noticed, even if I really focused on exploration and discovery. It has changed my life. I used to hate this city- I love it now.

For car-centered cities, this positive benefit is even stronger. I think you can make more of a case for "just opening your eyes and putting down the phone and trying new stuff" in a metro area like New York, but in a city like mine (Phoenix) where a city is often viewed through a car's windows, these tools are incredibly powerful.

So here's a vote in favor of the smartphone's amazing benefits, even if it does turn a lot of people into staggering zombies sometimes.
posted by Old Man McKay at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2013 [47 favorites]


She might be more "here" than the rest of us because she's looking at a map and knows where the hell we are.
posted by josephtate at 10:24 AM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]



It's new technology. We haven't yet figured out all the ways to use it. Give it time. Let's not fuck the future because the present is annoying.


Agree, but part of figuring out how to use new tech is taking a critical look at how it's being used. And count me among those concerned by the degree to so many of fellow passersby are more "distant" than they used to be. Maybe this is just me. Maybe this is ultimately of little import on the broader scale. Fair enough. But I do think it's fair to say something like, Do Not Use A Hand Held Device While Crossing The Street -- certainly not one that takes your eyes from the street.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


The other day I left the house without writing directions down, and without an Internet capable device. As I wandered looking for a landmark I had misremembered, I realized how rarely I get lost any more. Getting lost used to be a thing. We would stop someone to ask directions, we would try to find a payphone and call a friend who could help us get where we are going.

I make no claim that getting lost is in any way desirable, or even beneficial, but it is funny to think that it is a state of things that is disappearing - we have so few chances to actually be lost any more. It's very weird when you stop to think about it.
posted by idiopath at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Last night I went to a comedy show with a friend in an unfamiliar part of town. We wanted to get a drink afterwards, but we weren't sure whether there were any good bars nearby. I checked Yelp to find a place that looked great, and then used my phone's map to get us there. It was delightful and I'll probably go back the next time I'm in the area.

Perhaps it would have been more 'authentic' for us to just wander into whatever random bar we saw, but we only had time for one round and just wanted a place we knew would be good. I don't always walk around the city with my nose in my phone- I like exploration and discovery just fine. But must I be forced to 'explore' and 'discover' when I'd really rather just find a place to go and then go there, without a lot of faffing around?
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


But I do think it's fair to say something like, Do Not Use A Hand Held Device While Crossing The Street -- certainly not one that takes your eyes from the street.

Would you have had the same impulse to bring that up if the hand-held thing were, say, a book? Or a map? You should, because it's not about the specific device; it's about being aware of your surroundings (especially when crossing a street), which is - or should be - a basic city-living skill. But I rarely see this topic couched in those terms.

How much of this general argument is concern for citizens' safety, and how much is complaint that some people are acting a certain way that other people happen to find fault with for philosophical reasons rather than practical ones?

WALK AROUND WITH YOUR NOSE IN A BOOK AND NOBODY BATS AN EYE; STARE AT AN ELECTRONIC DEVICE AND EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MINDS
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


What's wrong with people nowadays?!? Things used to be WAY better in 1880, 1910, 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990!
posted by mazola at 10:42 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Engrossed in the virtual

I think it's worse than that, because being engrossed suggests that one is engaged, or at least paying attention. I suspect that a lot of the folks viewing life through their smartphones -- and relentlessly documenting it -- aren't engaged at all. They're using their experience as a trophy to show to others, as yet another means of polishing their identity. "Look at this cool thing I saw!" is often not about the "cool thing," it's about I, I, I.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:44 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


showbiz_liz, that makes me wonder if eventually the the Internet echo chamber will also become a real world echo chamber - maybe we will be less likely to wander into alien social environments, always knowing exactly where the closest subculture friendly alternative is.
posted by idiopath at 10:45 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


What, exactly, does the man texting at the bar disrupt?

Man, is this ever disingenuous. You're the one who premised your article on the existence of this nebulous disruption — you tell me!

uncivil side effects of smartphone growth [...] Anti-technology zoning for cognitive health – to protect us from our own worst instincts [...] It seems clear that there is such a thing as secondhand glow. It impedes our movement on busy sidewalks, breaks our concentration in movie theaters and libraries, and makes our public places as dull and private as phone booths.

I am beginning to wonder what all this techno-anxiety is actually a symptom of — what the real, unstated, underlying worry is, since it's clearly not the actual fact of distraction in public. People have read newspapers as a way of insulating themselves from social contact, e.g. on the subway or in public parks, since newspapers have existed; people have listened to music in the same way since the first Walkman. This article, like all the other anxious trend pieces it links, fails to provide any argument that there's something new here, and seems to think that the presence of its anxiety ("It seems clear") is argument enough that no one could disagree. But what is it actually even anxious about? The existence of other people? The anxiety seems to call for diagnosis, more than the argument about technology it thinks it's inviting.
posted by RogerB at 10:50 AM on November 3, 2013 [21 favorites]


I won't disagree that some percentage of people with smartphones/tablets/etc. seem to be using them in an unhealthy, or at least socially annoying, manner. But as someone said upthread, this is a new technology that society is figuring out, and it's très trendy, so there's going to be an unavoidable certain amount of abuse. Surely that will for the most part be temporary, though; as a general rule the craziness always dissipates eventually. So maybe let's cool it with the breathless essays about how [latest thing] is going to destroy civilization as we know it?
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:51 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


All I know is the world seems to be filled with far more assholes, and assholes who think it's perfectly acceptable to be an asshole. A right, even. I blame the internet. And day-trading.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:56 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Kids these days are lashing sticks ( lashing! I certainly never lashed) to flint. I fear this new technology is mediating the pure experience of the hand axe, depriving us of valuable mindfulness.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:06 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm reminded of the city of Reality in Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. In the book, everyone paid less and less attention to the city until finally - without anyone noticing - it faded away completely. Everyone simply rushes about with their heads down among invisible streets and buildings. And nearby live others in the city of Illusions, which is fantastically beautiful but doesn't actually exist.

Smartphones have their merits, but I fear at times that we're slowly replacing the real world of the senses with a digital simulacrum.
posted by Wemmick at 11:07 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can we stop whining about our awesome technology some time soon? It is getting tiresome.

These people in airplanes! So far removed from the days of adventuring across mountains and streams! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people in trains! So far removed from their fellow man in their speeding, metal cases! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people with their TV's! They don't know the simple joy of staring intently in to someones eyes while they tell a story by a campfire! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people with their indoor plumbing! They don't know the simple joy of waving hello to your neighbor who is also walking outside in the cold to take a freezing shit! They've lost touch with their fellows!

etc etc
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 11:10 AM on November 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


All I know is the world seems to be filled with far more assholes, and assholes who think it's perfectly acceptable to be an asshole.

Maybe. But I suspect there has always been pretty much the same percentage of self-entitled assholes, and our personal perception of the amount changes depending on whatever assholish behavior happens to get under our skin. Who here is old enough to remember a time before smoking in public came to be considered annoying and selfish behavior?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:12 AM on November 3, 2013


This is my favorite lovingly-referenced takedown of the worry that people didn't used to be so distractable. It's more about face-to-face conversations, but many of the same anxieties seem to apply.
posted by Earthtopus at 11:14 AM on November 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


WALK AROUND WITH YOUR NOSE IN A BOOK AND NOBODY BATS AN EYE

Not sure about this -- I grew up being told to put down the book I was always carrying and just *be* with everybody.

I ended up resenting this. Why was it that whatever I was interested in had to give way to whatever group dynamic somebody else had envisioned? Why wasn't this done instead as an expression of interest in whatever I was reading/thinking about?

There's certainly something to any admonition that I could have been more curious about the lives/thoughts of people around me instead of those written about by distant authors. I've learned a lot more about doing that. I admire people with a greater talent for it than I seem to have.

And I certainly get the idea that too much of life can be digitally mediated, at the cost of the quality of direct connections. Sometimes I just like stuff things like doing dishes because I've spent too much time wrangling electrons.

And yet I still bristle in some ways at the idea that I have some obligation to yield my attention. It probably goes back to the insistence on that point during my upbringing, but it's one reason I don't trust the current moral panic much.

These people in trains! So far removed from their fellow man in their speeding, metal cases! They've lost touch with their fellows!

I see you've read Thoreau.
posted by weston at 11:15 AM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Maybe I have my phone out and headphones on because other people are really annoying and I'd rather not deal with them in all their annoying "authenticity". Frankly, my media bubble is usually what keeps me from murdering people on public transit. Seriously, maybe people are just awful and our distractions are what keep us from murdering them, but nobody brings that up.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2013 [10 favorites]



WALK AROUND WITH YOUR NOSE IN A BOOK AND NOBODY BATS AN EYE; STARE AT AN ELECTRONIC DEVICE AND EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MINDS


Walk around with your nose in a book and I'd do the same thing I'd do if it was an electronic device. Anticipate that you probably haven't seen me, and thus give you a little more room than I would have otherwise. Then sort of shake my head, and think "sheesh, some people."

Now, if you're not actually reading the book as you walk, just saving it until you're sitting or standing somewhere, I doubt I'd notice you at all, except on the level of, "wow, you almost never see anyone reading an actual book anymore."
posted by philip-random at 11:17 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


showbiz_liz, that makes me wonder if eventually the the Internet echo chamber will also become a real world echo chamber - maybe we will be less likely to wander into alien social environments, always knowing exactly where the closest subculture friendly alternative is.

Do we really think that access to more information will lead to people making worse/more constrained choices? Because it seems to me that the 'good old days' involved as lot more 'going to the same familiar places every damn day' than 'unfettered exploration'. Do you also disapprove of movie reviews?
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:18 AM on November 3, 2013



These people in trains! So far removed from their fellow man in their speeding, metal cases! They've lost touch with their fellows!

I see you've read Thoreau.


Actually, no. I'm a minority who went to public school in Kansas so they would have never showed me who that was.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 11:19 AM on November 3, 2013


philip-random: Walk around with your nose in a book and I'd do the same thing I'd do if it was an electronic device.

Exactly, which was my intended point. Yet I don't ever remember seeing trend pieces harrumphing about "These people and their books and newspapers!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


wow...lots of apologists (participants?) for moving through the world unconsciously. Your vehemence suggests a little latent affirmation that something is being lost.

Would everything be even better if everyone had earbuds in and eyes glued to a smart device and VR goggles on. I mean, that would be the height of the I'm-really-so-very-connected-to-all-the-restaurants way of being.

Frankly you guys sound like the super-connected freaks in Snowcrash.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:25 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


These people in trains! [...]

I see you've read Thoreau.


You mean the guy who wrote:
I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear. [...] The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought [...]
It's certainly the case that simple-minded techno-lapsarians often conscript old Henry David into their anxious muddles as if he were a pure pastoral Luddite, but let's not forget that he was both smarter and more complicated than that about the technologies of his time and the social anxieties that they provoked.
posted by RogerB at 11:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


Frankly you guys sound like the super-connected freaks in Snowcrash.

Everyone's a gargoyle now.
posted by Wemmick at 11:26 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hey, I never said I disapproved of anything. Just wondering what might change. Mostly I don't even leave the house, frankly.
posted by idiopath at 11:27 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


What, exactly, does the man texting at the bar disrupt?

I'd rather go to a bar with no TV where half the people are looking at their phones, than your average sports bar with (a) hard to ignore TV(s), personally.

I'm as annoyed by phone-lookers who walk into you as the next person ("Walk, don't text, son," I said to the guy who nearly ran me down not long ago), but if it wasn't a phone, it might have been something else. You'll see the details of your world more clearly by walking everywhere instead of driving, too, but for better or worse we've accepted the car.

Pieces like these are easy to write because they stoke our fears that we aren't getting enough out of our lives, that we could be truly engaged if only we did this or got rid of that. They're a slightly more intellectual version of "New Diet Sheds Pounds Instantly."
posted by octobersurprise at 11:27 AM on November 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


wow...lots of apologists (participants?) for moving through the world unconsciously. Your vehemence suggests a little latent affirmation that something is being lost.

Would everything be even better if everyone had earbuds in and eyes glued to a smart device and VR goggles on. I mean, that would be the height of the I'm-really-so-very-connected-to-all-the-restaurants way of being.

Frankly you guys sound like the super-connected freaks in Snowcrash.


Yes, my cellular telephone has robbed me of my very humanity. The very best way to exist in the world was reached in exactly 1985, and everything since then has been a slow, dark slide down into a Matrix-esque hellscape.

You could also argue that if you weren't on this silly internet chat site you'd be doing something far more spiritually fulfilling, like reading or chatting with friends or exploring the neighborhood. And yet, here we all are.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:36 AM on November 3, 2013 [24 favorites]


Greg_Ace: "Exactly, which was my intended point. Yet I don't ever remember seeing trend pieces harrumphing about "These people and their books and newspapers!""

I mean, not that the typical entry in that genre doesn't suffer from lack of perspective, but part of the reason those reactions are so common is because the behavior is, too. I don't and haven't encountered that many people walking around in public while reading, even before the smartphone boom, but I think it happens more often with phones because they're more immediately compelling.
posted by invitapriore at 11:37 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought the bit about the guy with the gun on the train was interesting. I think it's more likely many people saw him but were scared, didn't know what to do and just hoped for the best.
posted by bleep at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


but I think it happens more often with phones because they're more immediately compelling.

yeah, the current phones etc have really magnified something that was always there in terms of folks walking around distracted. Same thing with people texting etc while driving. There have always been distracted drivers. Now, due to certain compelling tech, there are more than there used to be. Do we just shrug it off and say, whatever, people have always been idiots in this regard? Or do we have the kind of discussion that might actually lead to some consciousness?
posted by philip-random at 11:43 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Walker Evans would not have had to rig up his buttonhole camera for subway shots.

Indeed: San Francisco train gunman fails to attract attention of ‘overly engrossed’ smartphone users

I am beginning to wonder what all this techno-anxiety is actually a symptom of — what the real, unstated, underlying worry is, since it's clearly not the actual fact of distraction in public.

Yeah, I can agree with the basic premise while doubting its actual impact. As said, newspapers, the Walkman, etc. have been with us. I can even remember a few years ago when people walking around talking to a Bluetooth headset (almost like a street crazy) were the new weird technology and, while I'm not in a really urban area right now, it doesn't seem to be as big as it was even then.

There's also the whole Louis C.K. smartphones-are-ruining-our-kids line of argument.

I do think that there are some skills being lost eve while being lost disappears. We Google things to settle arguments right away instead of having discussions. There's good and bad there (and I wonder, sometimes, given the persistence of clearly wrong information in the public sphere). We stop being able to remember trivia, but maybe that wasn't an important life skill in the first place. (I used to have nearly the whole Senate and half of the House rattling around my brain, but not much anymore.) I'm a little more concerned that people seem less able to read maps. But again, maybe maps, as elegant as they can be, were just an obsolete technology for finding our way.

I really do worry about the meta level of technology becoming a crutch -- with the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, maybe the very ability to learn will atrophy.

I do know that having a spigot of useless infromation at my fingertips, like celebrity trivia, means I end up with a lot more of it in my head than I would ever have sought out if it were safely tucked away inside a magazine.
posted by dhartung at 11:43 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yes, my cellular telephone has robbed me of my very humanity. The very best way to exist in the world was reached in exactly 1985, and everything since then has been a slow, dark slide down into a Matrix-esque hellscape.

Please. Button up, your youth is showing. It's not the technology, it's the behavior. Have a little self-awareness. Quit acting as if the people physically surrounding you don't count because they're not on your Twitter feed.

On preview, yes, some isolate in the very same way with newspapers and books.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:44 AM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


[Friendly reminder, it's great to discuss the article or the phenomenon; there's no need to make it personal, please.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Reading a book or newspaper is every bit as antisocial, but it is a different kind of antisocial - more detached, more abstract, less personal.

I don't imagine the face of the author when I walk down the street reading a novel. I do engage with my idea of a friend when I pull out my phone to check a text message while I am walking. It feels more urgent, there is an emotional note to it, and the fear I may offend someone if I forget to respond, or don't respond promptly.

I think people read books or magazines in public to get away from other people, but they use smart phones in public mostly to be connected to other people - just not the specific people they are physically around at that moment. I think if anything we are more connected to our self selected groups with the technologies (for better and also for worse).
posted by idiopath at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


Or do we have the kind of discussion that might actually lead to some consciousness?

I think that kind of discussion focuses on behavior, not technology, though, and is prepared to take for granted that rudeness and carelessness tend to be a human constant. It isn't something produced by technology (though it may be abetted by it) and it won't necessarily be mitigated merely by the abscence of some kind of technology.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:01 PM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't care for your tone is this thread, j_curiouser.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 12:07 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


agree - too personal, not discussing the article, antagonistic. sorry. i think octobersurprise is getting at what i was so inarticulate about.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Would everything be even better if everyone had earbuds in and eyes glued to a smart device and VR goggles on. I mean, that would be the height of the I'm-really-so-very-connected-to-all-the-restaurants way of being.

Yes, because the only two possible ways to exist as a human are either as a science fiction gargolye or as a comically exaggerated luddite technophobe.
posted by elizardbits at 12:14 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


I really do worry about the meta level of technology becoming a crutch -- with the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, maybe the very ability to learn will atrophy.

I will point to the increasingly-rare ability of cashiers to give change at all unless the exact amount of cash tendered has been entered and the exact amount of change due is returned, let alone the ability to make change on the fly or understand what that extra penny or two is for. Hell, the registers at some fast-food places don't even have numbers, just pictures.


It isn't something produced by technology (though it may be abetted by it) and it won't necessarily be mitigated merely by the abscence of some kind of technology.

I want to agree, but I'm not so sure.

Take phones, for example. Before there were answering machines, you used to be able to unplug your phone and that was it. If someone called they got a busy signal, and most of the time people accepted that you were either talking to someone else or simply didn't feel like being disturbed. Fast forward to people asking "Are you there? Are you screening?" into your answering machine, and to today, when people will contact you eight different ways until you respond. In this case, the technology has definitely shaped the behavior.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:19 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


What we need is an app that helps to connect folks to others in the bar.. oh wait, that didn't go so well.
posted by sammyo at 12:23 PM on November 3, 2013


It's certainly the case that simple-minded techno-lapsarians often conscript old Henry David into their anxious muddles as if he were a pure pastoral Luddite, but let's not forget that he was both smarter and more complicated than that about the technologies of his time and the social anxieties that they provoked.

This is fairer than my drive-by quip. If he was anxious about how technology drove us, he was certainly also thoughtful about its capability and wonder.

But I think it's also pretty fair to say he was anxious, too:
The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land... It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.
posted by weston at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


VR goggles on

This reminds me that I saw a guy resting on a bench last week wearing something like solid matte gray sunglasses. I suppose they were some kind of media/VR rig, but I was struck by how much it looked precisely like an early '90s vision of what might be worn in 2013. I even looked around to see if Howard Rheingold or Jaron Lanier was hiding in the bushes.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2013


. I suspect that a lot of the folks viewing life through their smartphones -- and relentlessly documenting it -- aren't engaged at all.

Naaah that's just god old fashioned snobbery on your part. Don't confuse it for insight.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:52 PM on November 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


I will point to the increasingly-rare ability of cashiers to give change at all unless the exact amount of cash tendered has been entered and the exact amount of change due is returned, let alone the ability to make change on the fly or understand what that extra penny or two is for.

So, it turns out that I've had two cash-handling jobs recently, one of which was on a very high-tech cash register (actually an iPad with a special POS app) and one of which was just me, an apron with a pocket for each denomination, and the calculator app on my phone just in case I really got into a tight change-making spot.

Maybe I'm some kind of super-genius, but given no POS system at all and just a bunch of cash and a bunch of people who want to hand me cash and get back change, it is totally easy to handle. Especially since, in an informal setup like this, we don't sell that many products or have that many permutations of dollar amounts that things can add up to. It's easy to get into the rhythm of "peonies are $8 a bunch, that guy handed me a $20, I give him $12." And, again, I have a calculator if I really need it. (Which, I should say, I found that I used much more often to total up people's orders than to make change.)

That said, put a cash register and POS system in front of me, and no DUH of course I'm going to use it. There's no reason to try to make change mentally when I have to enter the amount onscreen regardless. Not to mention that, now, I'm navigating this computer program and operating a machine and not really thinking about arithmetic. So throwing in (unnecessary) arithmetic for no particular reason is more likely to complicate matters. Even though I'm perfectly capable of figuring out how much change to give someone if they ordered a $4.75 thing and gave me a $20. I'm just also doing all this other stuff. And it's not up to me, the employee, whether our company uses a POS system or not. I get a job. It involves using this software. I can either use the software or leave.

So pardon me if I don't have a lot of patience for people who seem to think the problem is dumbass service workers who can't make change and need these fancy machines. It's management who needs the machines and insists that we use them. You want an artisanal cash-handling experience with mental arithmetic? Tell it to my boss.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2013 [16 favorites]


Yes, let us all make sure we are looking up to get a good look at the billboards.
posted by Apropos of Something at 1:07 PM on November 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


The reason nobody complains about people walking around with their noses in books is that it was hardly ever a problem. Smartphones are simply more engaging than books ever were.

The thing is that obliviousness is only workable because considerate pedestrians defer to the jerks. It turns out that playing crosswalk chicken with the zombies in manhattan is a barrel of laughs if you aren't in a hurry. Oops! Excuse me! I couldn't see you because you were texting!
posted by nixt at 1:09 PM on November 3, 2013


Yet I don't ever remember seeing trend pieces harrumphing about "These people and their books and newspapers!"

Probably because they aren't that ubiquitous, not compared to the virtuals. Me, I'm hard pressed to remember the last time I saw someone walking and reading a book or newspaper, if indeed I ever have, except perhaps in cartoons where hilarious mayhem caused by the oblivious reader occurs outsides the oblivious reader's attention.

I think also that the vitual addict betrays a sense of urgency in his machine obsession that is a bit alarming. See, I consider great outdoors time as escape from the four-walls virtual world. If I'm walking a city street, I'm either letting the brain work out a problem or enjoying the sights, smells, sounds, happenstances of the outsides world, all those spontaneous blink-and-you-miss-it moments of public entertainment that will never be recorded to check out later. What could possibly trump reality? Is the real world or your own mind so uninteresting?

YMMV, of course. I remember Romper Room.

I will point to the increasingly-rare ability of cashiers to give change at all unless the exact amount of cash tendered has been entered and the exact amount of change due is returned, let alone the ability to make change on the fly or understand what that extra penny or two is for. Hell, the registers at some fast-food places don't even have numbers, just pictures.

You think that's scary? Just ask yourself why the menus at Denny's and such joints show pictures of the food.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:09 PM on November 3, 2013


I dunno Sara C, there's a lot of people who really aren't good at mental math. Some school districts are handing out calculators in kindergarten now. It's harder to make the argument that you need to know mental math in case "you don't have a calculator" when everyone has one at all times, on their phones. I tell my kids it's faster to do simple math without a calculator, once you get the hang out it.
posted by subdee at 1:15 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


A month or so ago, a friend of mine for more than 40 years came to visit me. I asked him if he needed directions, and he proudly told me "No, I've got this great new smartphone. It'll get me there, just fine."

Sure enough, 2 hours after he should have been here, he calls on that same smartphone, for directions and advice about how to get to my house. I got to kid him that he needed a smarterphone to navigate his smartphone. He wasn't nearly as graceful about it as he used to be back in the day when he always got lost trying to read folding maps while driving, either.

And then, towards the end of all that, his battery died, and it turned out he'd left his cord for charging from his lighter outlet back home. Didn't see him for another 2 hours, as it took him that long to find a payphone, and have me come get him, just like I used to do.

SSDD. (Same stuff, different decade.) Great phone, though, as notsmarterphones go, once he got it charged back up.
posted by paulsc at 1:27 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, people said this about Walkman when I was a kid.

But they were right!
posted by escabeche at 1:30 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


These people in trains!

I'm in a train at the moment. And I've been pretty much stuck in my phone at the last hour, because, hey, I spent my emotional budget today interacting with the people I crossed the country. But the train staff were really bubbly and friendly and bright and I'm a bit of a habitual tweeter, especially on the train, so I @mentioned the customer service of the train company, and now those staff will hear that I appreciated their friendliness.

I mean, I could have stared unreading at a book, or hoped to strike up conversation with someone who I may end up having something in common with, but this way I forewent that chance for the certainty of amusing
myself here and enjoying what you guys have to say.

I live in a tourist city, right in the touristiest part. And I see a lot of gadget and camera use, but I really never see it stopping people engaging with what's around them. So I think I call myself happy with the status quo.
posted by ambrosen at 1:38 PM on November 3, 2013


I dunno Sara C, there's a lot of people who really aren't good at mental math.

I'm one of them. I suck at math.

But the thing is, when doing basic arithmetic is your whole job, or a major component of it (and probably the component of it that requires the most brain power), figuring out change is easy.

When you're in an infrastructure that emphasizes other things and specifically asks you NOT to waste time doing mental math (like your average fast food front-of-house), it seems cruel to blame the workers for not demonstrating mental math tricks like a performing monkey.

Re kindergarten and your kid's math homework etc, I don't know. That's not really relevant. The answer I'd probably give there is "if you learn this stuff, you'll be able to do it in your head quicker and more easily than it would be to reach for your phone and open the calculator app." Which is what I found when it was just me and said app. (And, again, I suck at math.)

The reason we teach kids basic arithmetic is because you need it to get to the next level of math. It's a basic skill upon which more important skills are built. I'm sure that answer won't satisfy your children, just like "but you'll need this later to write papers in English class" probably doesn't satisfy them about doing their phonics worksheets.
posted by Sara C. at 1:40 PM on November 3, 2013


"Don't be an oblivious chowderhead" and "this new thing is making times worse than when I was young" are eternal.

And, since we're here, don't be an oblivious chowderhead.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 1:40 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I want to punch people wearing Google Glass, but I think the design impulse there is a good one. The current implementation is creepy, but I'd really appreciate the benefits of instant-on information without having to stare down at a tiny screen in my hands.

Whatever the future manifestation of "smartphones" is — glasses, implants, some kind of direct neural stimulation — this interstitial period where we gaze at tiny TVs is going to seem transient and ridiculous.
posted by nev at 1:44 PM on November 3, 2013


I don't have a smartphone, and I increasingly feel like that makes me live, perceptually speaking, in a different world from those who do. In one, you have dérive, mindfulness, serendipity, physical presence; in the other, you have omniscience, connection to those not present, knowledge. I can see pluses and minuses to both but my particular values draw me more towards deciding not to own a smartphone.
posted by threeants at 1:45 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


As someone whose main achievement as a child was the ability to memorize vast swaths of trivia, I am both pleased and disappointed to report that the internet has made me irrelevant.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:46 PM on November 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


in the other, you have omniscience, connection to those not present, knowledge

If it were possible to have that, without (literally) disengaging from the world around you, I think I'd be more comfortable with it. Yet Google Glass just gives me the heebie jeebies.

Oh, and to reference comments from earlier, the last time I got lost was when a friend's Waze misdirected us.
posted by sutt at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2013


Yes, let us all make sure we are looking up to get a good look at the billboards.

you got me. That's my only real concern in all of this. That these kids today aren't seeing all the advertising that's been arrayed around them for their benefit. At great expense, I might add.
posted by philip-random at 1:56 PM on November 3, 2013


Yes, waze can just fuck right off. Ugggghhhhhh.

Waze is only useful in two instances:

- you suddenly find yourself in bad traffic and want to know more about the nature of the traffic/if it's possible to get around the traffic in an unintuitive way you wouldn't have considered.

- you want to know the fastest way to get to a destination you're already familiar with, e.g. you're just looking for shortcuts or warnings about traffic or road closures or the like. There's ongoing work on a bridge I often take to work (but wherein there are other ways I could go), and waze can be helpful in telling me whether I should avoid the bridge construction this morning and go another way.

It's the WORST at navigating you through unfamiliar places.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on November 3, 2013


So pardon me if I don't have a lot of patience for people who seem to think the problem is dumbass service workers who can't make change and need these fancy machines. It's management who needs the machines and insists that we use them. You want an artisanal cash-handling experience with mental arithmetic? Tell it to my boss.

Whoa! I never said that the problem was "dumbass service workers" or even that the workers themselves were any kind of problem. I was responding specifically to this (which I even quoted in my original comment):
I really do worry about the meta level of technology becoming a crutch -- with the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, maybe the very ability to learn will atrophy.
and was giving an example of it. It wasn't about people using electronic cash registers or other POS sysytems, it's about people slowly losing the knowledge to do the job without the technology.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


In one, you have dérive, mindfulness, serendipity, physical presence; in the other, you have omniscience, connection to those not present, knowledge.

Again, there's the (I want to say "snobbish") blanket value judgement - the assumption that nobody who uses technology in public can do so in a mindful and engaged manner - that's the attitude I object to. In practice, it seems to me that most of us aren't terribly mindful and physically totally present anyway, irrespective of being deviced up. It's a skill that few possess, and smartphones don't automagically either grant it to or remove it from anyone.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


How many programmers today could get anything meaningful done with no stackoverflow or version control; with a UI consisting of ed, vanilla bourne shell, and a dumb terminal?

How many of us could get to work on time on a horse? Say what you will about cars, but I, for one, am glad I don't have to dodge horse shit whenever I walk anywhere. The way we live our lives changes, but we will probably find ways to be attentive or inattentive or engaged or bored regardless.

I think the bigger issues are not the day to day style of engagement, but the problems of livelihood and production. Technologies change, some skills are traded for other ones, and mostly when things become easier that allows those of us that remain employed to be more productive.

And where the real problems happen, the problems are not in the technologies themselves, but the economic and political system. For example, when workers can be more productive, the capitalist incentive is to employ fewer workers to do the now easier / more productive job for longer hours. So some percentage of the employees are stuck with a tedious, less engaged job and no free time, and the rest get no work or income at all. The total company revenue goes up, and the wealth and quality of life of the employees goes down. This isn't a technological problem, it is a political and economic one.
posted by idiopath at 2:24 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Silly. Technology is always an amoral, neutral tool.

People cracked the atom. Nuclear power. We can send a ship around the world. Generate power for millions of homes. Vaporise cities fill with people. Send a probe beyond our solar system.

The world is wired with fibre optic cable. The Internet. We have crowd-sourced encyclopaedias. Our experience is being shared as never before. Pedophiles are creating underground networks of child pornography. People report bribes they paid in real-time.

Are smart-phones killing us? No more than anything else I would imagine. The little anecdote about the man on BART with the gun is darkly comical. That the problem with that story was the smartphones and not guns.

Are smart-phones destroying public life? The webcast of occupy wall street would say not. The small businesses that are suddenly discoverable by tourists would say not.

Smart-phones may be destroying Slate's reader base and therefore their advertising revenue, but somehow I think the rest of us will get along just fine.

(And if the US had a choice between banning smart phones or handguns, I have a sneaking suspicion which way that vote would go...)
posted by nickrussell at 2:25 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


It wasn't about people using electronic cash registers or other POS sysytems, it's about people slowly losing the knowledge to do the job without the technology.

Except that you're wrong.

As someone who has done jobs with a POS system and jobs without, I haven't lost any knowledge at all.

It's just that the POS system makes using certain kinds of knowledge completely beside the point. I can still spell the word "horchata" despite the existence of the button on the POS that says "horchata". And, similarly, I can still do mental arithmetic despite the existence of a system that does not ask me to.

The point of POS isn't a crutch because people might not have basic academic skills. It's an accounting and inventory control tool. It tells management exactly who is buying what, in what quantities, at what times, with what method of payment (as well as making credit card sales feasible). In addition to MANY other management-level functions like tracking employee time, keeping a background tally of transactions performed (I can reprint a receipt you lost a week ago, for example), and providing valuable data for balancing the books and making sure that what's happening on paper corresponds to what's actually happening with the cash as it is handled on the sales floor.

The whole change thing is entirely beside the point and not even remotely the reason these systems are used. Nor does it have any effect on employees' knowledge of basic math skills.
posted by Sara C. at 2:26 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really do worry about the meta level of technology becoming a crutch -- with the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips, maybe the very ability to learn will atrophy.

When they came to writing Theuth said "O king, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory." King Theuth replied "...since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it; they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing...they will be difficult to get along with, since they merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."

Plato, Phaedrus, 274e
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Silly. Technology is always an amoral, neutral tool.

I doubt you're intending it, but the implication I'm getting here is that all technology is more or less the same insofar as it has the potential to positively or negatively change things. Problem is, it's not. A gun misused can do a hell of a lot more damage than a slingshot. Both are amoral, neutral tools.

The discussion I'm interested in is the one that identifies these positives and negatives and (tries to) separate them from our various prejudices so that we can determine how best to apply them (the technologies). In the case of writing which justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow just brought up, that would be the enhanced recording and distribution of wisdom versus the death of a certain kind of memory.
posted by philip-random at 3:00 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Take phones, for example. Before there were answering machines, you used to be able to unplug your phone and that was it. If someone called they got a busy signal

To nitpick: This would result in your phone ringing and ringing. If you wanted people to get a busy signal, you would have to leave the phone off the hook or otherwise short your line.

</pedantry>
posted by Juffo-Wup at 3:14 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Indeed: San Francisco train gunman fails to attract attention of ‘overly engrossed’ smartphone users
There's a name for people who pay careful attention to what those standing across from them on the train are doing with their hands: creepy fucking weirdos. It's fortunate that a new technology has come along and allowed those who would ordinary stare down their fellow passengers to lose themselves in less socially awkward activities, making the commuting experience much more pleasant and satisfying for everyone. (Except, I grant, in the incredibly rare case of unprovoked violent assaults on strangers which include silent but obvious preparation.) The smart phone delivers for the masses what the paperback has always done for those of us willing to lug them around everywhere.

Or, with less snark - I like being present, and paying attention to infrastructure, and engaging with the city. And, I love that the networked computer in my pocket informs those activities and lets me meet others who feel the same. If it makes other people happy to spend their time in public paying attention to things I don't find compelling, that's okay too.
posted by eotvos at 3:22 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a misanthrope, anything to remove the need for icky direct human contact is more than welcome. Now excuse me, my iPhone, Galaxy Tab and Macbook miss me.
posted by signal at 3:28 PM on November 3, 2013


The whole change thing is entirely beside the point and not even remotely the reason these systems are used.

No, the change thing is the entire point! At least the entire point I was making. I never mentioned POS systems, or inventory control or anything like that. All I mentioned was making change.

Also, I only used the word "cashier", not "service worker" and not "performing monkey". I've had more cash-handling jobs than I can remember, and it's a job I always enjoyed. I really feel like some of this aggro is misdirected.

On preview:
Jufgo-Wup, I'm remembering it oppositely: You had to unplug it from the wall because if you left it off the hook you'd get that rapid busy signal on your end. Either way, you could go an evening without being interrupted and it wasn't the affront it can be now.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:28 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can still turn your phone off now, avoid Facebook and your email for an evening, maybe an entire weekend.

Maybe for someone born since 1990 or whenever, this is much easier said than done. But for me, it's a case of defining for those in network how available I am. For instance, unless I'm expecting some kind of important call etc, I almost never take my phone with me when I'm out on foot running errands in the neighborhood. And people seem to accept this. They get that just because I don't immediately pick up and/or reply, I haven't died or something. I'm just not that available. It makes me a much nicer person in the end.
posted by philip-random at 3:47 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


No, the change thing is the entire point! At least the entire point I was making. I never mentioned POS systems, or inventory control or anything like that. All I mentioned was making change.

Yes, but the whole thing you were mentioning doesn't actually exist.

The reason the cash register tells you how much change to give back isn't because cashiers don't know how to make change. The cash register requires you to type in the amount of cash you were just handed by the customer.

It doesn't do this in order to walk you through proper change-making procedures. (Though the ability to prevent simple math errors is a nice side effect.) It does this so that management can keep a precise eye on umpteen different aspects of the transaction.

The entire "cash registers now have X feature because cashiers don't have Y or Z basic life skills" is completely false. Cash registers have the features they have because management wants to have access to certain kinds of data.

It would be drastically easier to train cashiers in manual change-counting procedures than it actually is to train a cashier in proper use of a POS system. A lot of service jobs actually include "experience on POS systems", or even stipulate which specific POS systems you need to be familiar with, in job listings. Because it's relatively sophisticated software. Much more complex than making change.
posted by Sara C. at 3:49 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Room 641-A: what you are remembering was the loud "off-the-hook" alert, which would happen if you left your phone off the hook too long. The correct way to give people a busy signal was to take the receiver off the hook, then unplug it in order to silence that off-the-hook sound. Or you can unplug the phone from the wall and the phone will just "ring" for the other party without you hearing it.
posted by idiopath at 3:50 PM on November 3, 2013


Everyone's a gargoyle now.

On the Internet nobody knows you're a gargoyle.
posted by localroger at 3:56 PM on November 3, 2013


Getting lost used to be a thing. We would stop someone to ask directions, we would try to find a payphone and call a friend who could help us get where we are going.

The dependence goes deeper than that. My phone died recently when I was in the middle of negotiating where to meet a friend, and it was hard to remember how we used to do this stuff. It turns out I can only remember two phone numbers: mine and my folks' landline. Had to call them and ask for help contacting my friend and get directions.

Similarly with longer journeys. Used to be I wouldn't get on a flight without knowing everything about my journey at the other end - timetables, the lot. Now I get on the plane and figure out my next move on my phone when I land.

I suspect a lot of the city use of phones is things like this. It's not like we're all taking pictures of your lawn to Instagram while we walk. People are now doing less prep and more adapting in real-time: navigating, connecting, figuring things out as they go.
posted by bonaldi at 3:59 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Call me a Luddite: I live in Silicon Valley and work at a software company, and I don't have wifi in my apartment. I don't have a TV, but I don't have Netflix either. The only Internet connectivity I have around the house is my phone, which I can only use for 15 minutes at a time before I give up out of frustration with shitty, shitty mobile UIs.

And you know what? Without those two things, wifi coverage out in public is far from ubiquitous and far from reliable. Remember about 8 years ago when cities across the US were considering creating citywide wifi networks as a public service? I guess since then we've all decided that we'd much rather get an $80 phone bill each month instead.

And since "everybody has a smartphone," most gathering places offer only perfunctory wifi and are at a loss for how to troubleshoot it. Not to mention that here in Palo Alto, at least, most cafes (the archetypal wifi hot spot!) either have minimal seating to discourage customers from staying, or are packed day and night with lines stretching out the door. When I lived near DC, the situation was pretty much identical. Get a phone or go sit on the floor in the corner at Panera.

I imagine life would be very different if wifi were, in fact, ubiquitous, reliable, and conveniently accessible out and about town.
posted by Nomyte at 4:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


These luddite accusations are tedious. Yes, I use Yelp and GPS, I'm a Berlin Wall baby. I was hoping for memories from older users about public spaces pre-internet, instead apparently I'm a caveman for wondering what's been lost, good or bad.

I don't believe technology is inherently progressive, sorry. These devices are forcing us to be always-available, and nightmarish career implications aside, I think everyone is familiar with web-fatigue. I know when to put down the phone and pick up the book, but in 2013 there is a little worm in your head asking "what's new?" No amount of self-control and discipline slays the worm.

I look at paintings from 19th century Europe, these huge public spaces. Romanticized, sure, but I'm still fascinated by how this technology affects social behavior.
posted by gorbweaver at 4:17 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Remember about 8 years ago when cities across the US were considering creating citywide wifi networks as a public service? I guess since then we've all decided that we'd much rather get an $80 phone bill each month instead.

Needed to see that again.

Also, Sara C., I don't think the argument dhartung made above is "cash registers now have X feature because cashiers don't have Y or Z basic life skills." I think you're reversing the causality there. The argument that new tech will make certain human skills less important is not a new one, as the Plato quote above demonstrates, but I think you've mischaracterized it.
posted by mediareport at 4:21 PM on November 3, 2013


Technology is always an amoral, neutral tool.

That is a highly questionable statement. What does "amoral" mean in this context? What is "neutral"? Sorry, but if technology is "always" anything, it's always closely bound up with power relations and contingent histories.

And neither of those things is amoral or neutral.
posted by mediareport at 4:23 PM on November 3, 2013


I was hoping for memories from older users about public spaces pre-internet, instead apparently I'm a caveman for wondering what's been lost, good or bad.

If you want public spaces where people are engaged with each other instead of little glass rectangles, come to Palo Alto! Of course, Palo Alto social life is a 200-foot-long line for ice cream sandwiches at Cream at 10PM on a weeknight.
posted by Nomyte at 4:25 PM on November 3, 2013


I think you're reversing the causality there. Anyway, the argument that new tech will make certain human skills less important is not a new one, as the Plato quote above demonstrates, but I think you've mischaracterized it.

No, what I'm saying is that cash registers have nothing to do with cashiers' ability to make change.

I've worked in cash-handling jobs where I have a sophisticated register with built-in calculator that requires no math whatsoever to make change. I've also had cash-handling jobs where I have nothing but my brain. Access to the former has not made the latter more difficult.

The two systems simply use different skillsets. And, no, learning the one doesn't erase the other. It's possible to be able to navigate a POS system and also make change manually.
posted by Sara C. at 4:30 PM on November 3, 2013


Of course it is. I just think raising a question about what the proliferation of calculators into kindergarten classes might mean for those building blocks of math they'll need later is indeed relevant here.
posted by mediareport at 4:33 PM on November 3, 2013


But cashiers making change has nothing to do with kindergartners with calculators.

Also, I would question that choice in terms of pedagogy, not in terms of technology.

Calculators are still amazing, and the ability to create machines that can do split-second mathematical calculations is still the basis of pretty much all of modern society.

But they probably aren't an essential tool for young children learning basic math.
posted by Sara C. at 4:42 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm late to this thread but there's a difference in my mind between reading a newspaper in public and reading one's phone. Rarely if ever have I seen someone cross the street or walk down the sidewalk or sit amongst friends at dinner reading a newspaper, but I see it with smartphones constantly.

Or to put it another way: a newspaper is better than nothing, but the problem with a smartphone is that it's better than everything.
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:08 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


I guess since then we've all decided that we'd much rather get an $80 phone bill each month instead.

Whatever Happened To Municipal WiFi?
Why Are There No Big Cities With Municipal Broadband Networks?
North Carolina Enacts Pro-ISP, Anti-Municipal Broadband Law
South Carolina passes bill against municipal broadband
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:27 PM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


gorbweaver, in my 35-plus years of adult experience neither pre- nor post-internet public spaces is/was inherently better or worse, just different. People were more or less just as connected and socially engaged (or not) without smartphones as they are now. Don't romanticize a past because you're disenchanted by the present. If there was ever a "golden age of public spaces", it was gone before the Internet came to be.

No amount of self-control and discipline slays the worm.

That may be your experience, but it isn't mine, and I suspect I'm not alone.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:41 PM on November 3, 2013


People were more or less just as connected and socially engaged (or not) without smartphones as they are now

I respectfully disagree. Not only have I seen a rise in the desire to avoid actual social engagement, but I've seen a decline in the ability of the 20-something generation's basic abilities to interact directly.

And I say this as someone who knows a bit about it.

Smartphones, it seems to me, have become a very good tool for fending off potential interactions.

I'm not saying smartphones are bad. I don't have one, because I think it's criminal to have to pay for the internet twice. But I do think they are a very convenient shield for many people. And, again, from personal experience, the more you raise your shield, the harder it is to put it down.
posted by sutt at 5:52 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I also have to respectfully disagree. Comparisons with books and newspapers are ludicrous.

You can pull out your phone in any social situation whatsoever, and that is considered unremarkable in the court of public opinion. In fact, any criticism at all would be considered rude and presumptuous.

When it was more common to see people read books in public, someone reading a book while walking or standing around would have appeared rather odd. You might recall that for a lot of people, reading was a relatively niche hobby that occupied a small fraction of their free time, just as it does today. Someone who thought that the time they spent walking somewhere or while standing around would be well spent reading a book would have been considered a bookworm and a weirdo. That doesn't hold true for smartphones at all.

And completely unlike books, smartphones are devices for shopping and consuming. A smartphone is a standing invitation to keep boredom and anxiety at bay by spending some money. Feeling restless while you're waiting for the bus? Spend some money! Order takeout! Buy a movie ticket! Shop for apps! Buy music! A smartphone is a series of commercial transactions. A book isn't. While I'm reading a book, I'm not assaulted by lists of "more books you might like based on your past purchases."

A newspaper comes close, because it contains ads and reviews for movies and restaurants, so you could in principle browse through ads and decide on what to see at the cinema. The obvious response is that (a) people had newspapers delivered to their homes and read them there, instead of walking around with them for the most part, and (b) newspaper subscriptions and readership were down long, long before the advent of smartphones. And no one, absolutely no one would consider it polite to pull out a newspaper on a romantic date or while talking to friends.
posted by Nomyte at 6:30 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


And completely unlike books, smartphones are devices for shopping and consuming. A smartphone is a standing invitation to keep boredom and anxiety at bay by spending some money. Feeling restless while you're waiting for the bus? Spend some money! Order takeout! Buy a movie ticket! Shop for apps! Buy music! A smartphone is a series of commercial transactions. A book isn't. While I'm reading a book, I'm not assaulted by lists of "more books you might like based on your past purchases."

Not only have I never bought a thing on my phone... I've bought many a paperback that did have ads for other books in the back.

Also, no, it is not universally cool to just whip your phone out in conversation. People seem to be reacting to broad comic stereotypes of what cells phones are like in this thread.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:09 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


A smartphone is a standing invitation to keep boredom and anxiety at bay by spending some money.

Not necessarily true. For me it is something I use to read books, news and public forums; instead of being frustrated standing in a line, I play a game - however, I don't need a new game every day - a pack of solitaire card games works well - for years. I don't buy music via my mobile or desktop devices - I buy CD's and rip them myself. Did you know you can get ebooks via your local library? You don't have to buy them. (Hmmm... technically, you can get CD's and videos from the same place...)

Strangely - I have had a smartphone and/or PDA (combined with cellular data cable for modem purposes) since long-before the current craze, so it is not like I am a late-adopter.

Perhaps this is just the way I was raised - I do not need instant gratification for consumer purchases. However, instant access to news, information and a few key applications is irresistible - that is how I know we are finally "in the future".
posted by jkaczor at 7:13 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


People seem to be reacting to broad comic stereotypes of what cells phones are like in this thread.

QFT.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:26 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


While I'm reading a book, I'm not assaulted by lists of "more books you might like based on your past purchases."

I really don't care to defend smartphones at the expense of books, but this statement does suggest an unfamiliarity with paperback books.

Anyway, your complaint seems to be that people do annoying things with their phones. Which: granted. People are annoying, the beasts.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:01 PM on November 3, 2013


I really don't care to defend smartphones at the expense of books, but this statement does suggest an unfamiliarity with paperback books.

The paperbacks I read usually have a page in the back encouraging me to send $0.25 and a SASE to Ballantine Books to receive their paper catalog of new releases from the year 1972.

Also, no, it is not universally cool to just whip your phone out in conversation. People seem to be reacting to broad comic stereotypes of what cells phones are like in this thread.

I'm… what? No, I'm reacting to the behavior of the people around me. As in, I have just minutes ago come back from dinner with an acquaintance who spent a good part of it examining his phone. It's neither unusual nor a comic stereotype.
posted by Nomyte at 8:08 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


My shelves of Penguins all have more than a few pages suggesting other titles I might like to buy based (presumably) on the title in hand. As do my Oxfords, my Nortons, my mass markets, etc. So now we're just quibbling over the precise degree to which the presence of any of these lists are "assaulting." And we're doing it on the internet!
posted by octobersurprise at 8:28 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It would be drastically easier to train cashiers in manual change-counting procedures than it actually is to train a cashier in proper use of a POS system.

It appears you know nothing about the reason for POS systems. The entire computer industry was founded by one paranoid shopkeeper who was convinced his cashiers were stealing from the till. So he created this device called the Cash Register, to keep track of every transaction, using little slips of paper with punched holes in them. That company was called International Business Machines, now IBM.

Despite the existence of cash registers, it is still common for cashiers to skim money. For example, some cashiers keep pennies on top of the flat plate over the cash drawer. They slide them around each time they skim some money, they use a little "abacus" method to keep track of how much extra money is in the till that they have to pull out at the end of the day.

But more to the point, the simple act of counting change is almost completely extinct. Today, usually the cashier looks at the POS system, pulls the amount of money from the drawyer, and says, "your change is $3.47" then drops the bills in your hand and dumps the change on top of the bills, so you drop the change all over. Sometimes the cashier drops a little stack of coins on top of your bills, almost forcing you to spill it when it topples over. This is exactly how you do NOT give change.

The way I was taught is very precise, so you do not get ripped off by a short-change artist. Here is a sample transaction. The customer purchases $5.27 of goods and offers a $10. Here's how it goes.

I think to myself, $5.27. I go to the pennies slot and pull 3 cents. $5.30.
I go to the dimes slot, pull two dimes, $5.50.
I go to the quarters slot, pull two quarters, $6.00.
I go to the dollar bill slot and pull $4. $10.

Now I repeat that back to the customer, dropping the change in his hand as I recite the sums from smallest to largest.

"That's [1, 2, 3 pennies] $5.30, $5.40, $5.50, $5.75, $6. $7, $8, $9, and Ten." Alternately, when you are done with the small change, you could offer the $4 and say "And four dollars makes ten."

Notice that I have proffered the change first and the bills last, so the change is in his hand underneath the bills, so he won't drop it.

Only once in about the last ten years have I had anyone actually use this correct procedure when making change for me.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:31 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


These people in airplanes! So far removed from the days of adventuring across mountains and streams! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people in trains! So far removed from their fellow man in their speeding, metal cases! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people with their TV's! They don't know the simple joy of staring intently in to someones eyes while they tell a story by a campfire! They've lost touch with their fellows!

These people with their indoor plumbing! They don't know the simple joy of waving hello to your neighbor who is also walking outside in the cold to take a freezing shit! They've lost touch with their fellows!



Each one of these is a unique experience that makes you relate to the world in a different way. You lose some things, you gain some things.

I love my smart phone. Drives me nuts if I misplace it or it isn't charged when I want it. But dang if I'll always take it horseback riding with me, and sometimes I won't answer it. To some people that's anathema.

This weekend I was using iphone photos with my horseshoer to discuss the mule's progress with his feet since he's been doing natural balance trimming. Old and new technology. Life is interesting.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:36 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have just minutes ago come back from dinner with an acquaintance who spent a good part of it examining his phone.

Then that acquaintance has personal issues and/or is not very interested in spending time with you. The group outings I'm been a part of, which include a wide range and age of largely tech-savvy people, don't involve more than maybe 5-10% phone usage.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:38 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The way I was taught is very precise, so you do not get ripped off by a short-change artist. Here is a sample transaction. The customer purchases $5.27 of goods and offers a $10. Here's how it goes.

I think to myself, $5.27. I go to the pennies slot and pull 3 cents. $5.30.
I go to the dimes slot, pull two dimes, $5.50.
I go to the quarters slot, pull two quarters, $6.00.
I go to the dollar bill slot and pull $4. $10.


Yes, that's exactly my point.

It takes about ten minutes to teach a cashier to do that.

It takes hours of training to teach a cashier to use a POS system.

As I said upthread, today's computerized cash registers were not created for the purpose of cashiers being bad at math (and nor do they cause cashiers to become bad at math). They were created for the purpose of tracking all sorts of data about sales transactions.

Which you said, yourself, in your condescending description of the history of IBM.

If store owners wanted cashiers to be better at making change, they'd either do trainings of how to count change properly, or they'd stock every till with a $2 calculator. Instead they've invested in these massive machines, because it helps them operate their business more efficiently.

It's really not about how nobody knows how to do mental arithmetic anymore, and to pretend it is so is classism, plain and simple.
posted by Sara C. at 8:45 PM on November 3, 2013


And as far as the correct manner in which to place change in a customer's hand, if you don't like it, you have two choices: pay with a credit card or make your own damn latte.
posted by Sara C. at 8:49 PM on November 3, 2013


It's really not about how nobody knows how to do mental arithmetic anymore, and to pretend it is so is classism, plain and simple.

It's not classism in the sense of people not knowing how to do arithmetic. If anything, it's classism of Management vs. Workers. Managers assume their employees will steal, so they set up POS systems designed to prevent theft, they may even have automatic change dispensers so the cashier can't skim small change, since they have no access to the change at all.

But even with the most careful manual procedures, human errors will always be made, as I found my own cash drawers out of balance now and then. But I did once catch a shortchange artist with those skills and took his stake in the con and came out $20 ahead. If I hadn't caught him, my till would have been short and the manager would have assumed I stole the money.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:32 PM on November 3, 2013


I was always taught to avoid the short-changing scam by refusing to open the till without a transaction.
posted by Sara C. at 9:34 PM on November 3, 2013


"... Yes, I use Yelp and GPS, I'm a Berlin Wall baby. I was hoping for memories from older users about public spaces pre-internet, instead apparently I'm a caveman for wondering what's been lost, good or bad. ..."

When I lived in Boston, in the pre-Internet early '80s, the city lived in Fenway Park all summer, except on July 4, when it lived at the Esplanade. On Patriots Day, in April, the population strung out along the 26 miles of the Marathon route. In the fall, there was a Tuesday night Symphony crowd, regular Saturday crowds for Harvard home games, and nobody really paid attention to those New England Patriots, down in Foxboro. Eventually, in the fall, the Bruins and the Celtics started up, and you couldn't get a damn ticket at the Garden, to save your life. So you went to da bahs, and you watched damned NESN, and you lied about the last time you saw Larry Bird, in person.

And at every one of those occasions, you got the smell of people, and the murmur of them, and occasionally, some cannon fire, or a whizzin' foul ball, or some blood spatter from a punished NY Ranger, pretty close. You yelled together, you booed together, you sang Sweet Caroline, when everyone else did, and you didn't worry about documenting your experience in selfies.

Then, I moved to Atlanta, in the late 80s. A city without a real public gathering spot, except for some sports venues, which really didn't open for civic situations. Not until the Olympics in the '90s did Atlanta really commit to hosting big crowds of people, and to providing gathering space for that kind of thing, downtown. And then, it was only Centennial Plaza. It might have been a lot more, I think, but the Internet started up, and suddenly, staying home and typing into a phone line was cool. You couldn't consistently fill the former Olympic stadium, repurposed as Turner Field, even with a winning ball team. The Falcons used to let people in to watch their practices, no charge.

I don't know that smartphones and other portable devices are re-shaping the cities we live in, but they probably are affecting how we use whatever public spaces we have, and how we think about future development. I'm sick of cell phones ringing and being answered in restaurants where I eat. I'm over, altogether, people who loudly repeat Important Weather Updates, as they scroll off their smartphone screens. I've quit going out to movies, for all the smartphone kids, and the talk back folk, and the people who take cellphone calls, there, too.

It's me, I know. I'm the one with a perception problem. The world is so much better off for all that future electronic waste billions of us insist on carrying, 6 ounces or so in each individual package, now.

But I'm not. I'm just not.
posted by paulsc at 9:38 PM on November 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's no guarantee, Sarah. There are plenty of short change methods that build off a regular, simple transaction and then get the drawer open, and then the tomfoolery happens.There are plenty of videos on youtube showing how the scams work, I won't go into them here. But I was taught the customers money stayed on the plate on top of the cash drawer during the transaction, and was not put into the drawer until change was made. This keeps the customer's money from mixing with the till until the transaction is closed. Most scams ask for their money back out of the till to reopen the transaction on new terms, like "hey I need that Five back, I've got a five and I need a ten." Then the con starts. Seriously, check out some of the scams explained on YouTube, they're pretty clever. They use the ritual of the routine money exchange by forcing their fraud though the transaction, looking like the legit exchange.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:53 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then, I moved to Atlanta, in the late 80s. A city without a real public gathering spot, except for some sports venues, which really didn't open for civic situations. Not until the Olympics in the '90s did Atlanta really commit to hosting big crowds of people, and to providing gathering space for that kind of thing, downtown. And then, it was only Centennial Plaza. It might have been a lot more, I think, but the Internet started up, and suddenly, staying home and typing into a phone line was cool. You couldn't consistently fill the former Olympic stadium, repurposed as Turner Field, even with a winning ball team. The Falcons used to let people in to watch their practices, no charge.

paulsc: that sounds more like a 'poor city planning' problem than a 'handheld tech' problem, don't you think?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:58 PM on November 3, 2013


Gosh, the experiences I miss while being on a smart phone in the city. Like seeing the trash strewn across the street and sidewalks. Or hearing the religious person screaming at people and telling them exactly why they are going to hell. Or smelling the urine from people using doorways as toilets. Oh yeah, how could I ever wat to miss those connections in favor of the sterility of the internet?
posted by happyroach at 11:13 PM on November 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Your phone goes over your eyes, up your nose, and down your ears?
posted by Nomyte at 11:50 PM on November 3, 2013


There's a name for people who pay careful attention to what those standing across from them on the train are doing with their hands:

"People without gunshot wounds"?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:43 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


"paulsc: that sounds more like a 'poor city planning' problem than a 'handheld tech' problem, don't you think?"
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:58 AM on November 4

I suppose a left out a relevant bit. Sorry.

MindSpring Enterprises, which later merged with Earthlink, began in Atlanta, with 8 phone lines, in, oh, 1992. Shortly after the Olympics, that once little local ISP had grown to the point where it had more dialup customers online each week day evening on the Atlanta POP, than you could've put in Turner Field, all at once. Telco planning in Atlanta in that period was seriously overdriven to POTS lines, for use as dial up dsta lines, in ways even greedy Bell South didn't really want. As its turned out, Bell South bought more switching, and pulled more copper POTS lines, than its ever really needed, since the late 90s, in and around Atlanta.

So, that city very much went virtual, without really ever having much of a downtown urban life en masse, after a short experience of it with the Olympics, in ways few other cities ever really experienced. All told, MindSpring eventually had something like 250,000 dial up lines around the Southeast, by about 1999, I think.

Having 250,000 people doing the same thing in evening hours, most evenings, in that region, voluntarily, hadn't really happened before, except for the adoption of TV in the late 50s. Even radio took longer to reach mass audience numbers in the 20s and 30s. Nobody really knew what to make of it, then, or still, I think, although the added factor of mobility in data usage is a new wrinkle.

But it really put a dent in ball game attendance, according to some unquotable people with the Braves...
posted by paulsc at 2:50 AM on November 4, 2013


Also, no, it is not universally cool to just whip your phone out in conversation. People seem to be reacting to broad comic stereotypes of what cells phones are like in this thread.

A broad comic stereotype that happens all the time.
posted by sutt at 4:53 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


--A sad moment: a couple had staged a small, full-dress wedding near the arch in Washington Park. Wedding party of 8, including bride, groom and minister. They were surrounded by a thick ring of strangers--who, swear to god, were all viewing it through a screen (whether a camera, phone, or tablet) as they scrambled to document it into digital ephemera.

Louis nails this.
posted by flabdablet at 5:05 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Screen-hypnotized pedestrians are like drivers in a game of chicken who have thrown out their steering wheel.
posted by whuppy at 5:41 AM on November 4, 2013


All I know is the world seems to be filled with far more assholes, and assholes who think it's perfectly acceptable to be an asshole.

I seem to remember a healthy supply of assholes in any decade I remember well, going back to the '70s. I don't think the issue is that there are more assholes, just that some of the assholes who are always there are going to be using newly-available technologies instead of whatever old mode of personally bothering you they might have exhibited in the past.

Then, I moved to Atlanta, in the late 80s.

Re paulsc above, I honestly wonder if the distinction you're seeing isn't between the social and physical structure of the cities in question (Boston vs Atlanta, which are in my experience really different cities in terms of inner city/suburbs balance and population distribution as well as availability of easy public transportation) than pre/post-net differences.

I dunno, re the whole thread I'd rather have a dozen people around me quietly texting and looking at the web on their smartphones than gabbing loudly and inanely into their ten/twenty-years-ago dumb phones, so that feels like a net plus to me.
posted by aught at 7:06 AM on November 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


And then, it was only Centennial Plaza. It might have been a lot more, I think, but the Internet started up, and suddenly, staying home and typing into a phone line was cool.

Having been away for much of the '90s, I remember returning to Atlanta for a visit in '01 and being a little stunned to discover that there was actually something resembling a 24-hour-ish downtown. Smartphones, or the internet, can't take the fall for the paucity of urban public spaces in Atlanta because, in my lifetime, looking at 50 not far off, Atlanta never had those kinds of spaces. Atlanta's the LA of the south. When I was a kid we'd go to the downtown Macy's at Christmas, but more for tradition's sake than anything else. Even then people shopped in the malls and lived in the 'burbs. In the mid-80's, when I went to the 688 Club, the downtown was practically rolled up at sunset. You'd walk around downtown then and encounter handfuls of fellow pedestrians. It was fun, but spooky.

(I took a cab once with a friend, late, after MARTA shut, from downtown, to, I think, Oxford Books, which was open until 1AM or so, and en route the Jamaican driver slowed to pick up another fare who waved him and prompted him to shout "White people scared to ride with white people now! I have seen everything!")

I hear from musician friends sometimes that it's still tough to get a crowd out in Atlanta, but the city probably has a more vibrant public life now than anytime in my life.

If public spaces and the idea of "public space" have deteriorated over the last half century or so, then that deterioration owes more to racial strife, the decline of public transportation, the dominance of cars and television, and the emergence of an ethos which disputes the value of public anything, than it does to smartphones or the internet. And IME, at least, the smartphone seems to have contributed to, or at least accompanied, a tiny revival of public life. The people I see at bars, coffee shops, downtown markets, and performances may be glued to their phones, but they are out, not sitting at home in front of the TV.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd rather have a dozen people around me quietly texting and looking at the web on their smartphones than gabbing loudly and inanely into their ten/twenty-years-ago dumb phones

Yes, or even worse, attempting to make small talk with me while I am trying to quietly read a book on my ipad.
posted by elizardbits at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


If public spaces and the idea of "public space" have deteriorated over the last half century or so, then that deterioration owes more to racial strife, the decline of public transportation, the dominance of cars and television, and the emergence of an ethos which disputes the value of public anything, than it does to smartphones or the internet. And IME, at least, the smartphone seems to have contributed to, or at least accompanied, a tiny revival of public life.

I don't think I agree with your last sentence (mostly because it sounds like the act of people merely being in public is sufficient to constitute "public life" by your definition), but this is a good point. I wonder if a lot of the frustration here isn't veiled frustration at exactly those dynamics, with the special vehemence coming from the fact that those same dynamics all seem pretty well-entrenched now.

There's also a fear that new technologies like this are Trojan horses for a harmful socioeconomic payload, which isn't unreasonable in light of some of the developments you cite, like the rise of the automobile and the concomitant decline of public transportation. Where I think that argument typically goes wrong is that it assumes that the socioeconomic effects are necessarily a consequence of the prominence of the technology itself. The introduction of the car isn't in itself the end of public transportation: there are plenty of places where both modes of transport coexist, and there's nothing about the car itself that led GM and others to dismantle the streetcar infrastructure in the US. Still, the product gets used as a tool to further an agenda. In that light, I think it's wise to be wary of where trends like this are taking us.
posted by invitapriore at 11:08 AM on November 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, waze can just fuck right off.

I remember laughing at the idea of "social GPS-ing", but having used it for more than a year now, I really appreciate and value Waze. It's saved me from more speed traps and red light cameras than I can count. When I or other members of my family are driving anywhere, we can send each other Waze links so that the people at our destinations can track our position and ETA (with elderly parents, this provides real peace of mind). I would never take any long-distance drive without it now and most of my short-distance drives are also made with Waze. It needs improvement with respect to some address-finding and routing, but as long as I make sure that my phone's GPS is on before I switch on Waze it's been much better. And since they've been purchased by Google, I'm sure that it'll only keep on improving.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:26 AM on November 4, 2013


"... Re paulsc above, I honestly wonder if the distinction you're seeing isn't between the social and physical structure of the cities in question (Boston vs Atlanta, which are in my experience really different cities in terms of inner city/suburbs balance and population distribution as well as availability of easy public transportation) than pre/post-net differences. ..."

Sure, all of that hit me when I first moved to Atlanta, as much as the heat, and the incredible growth Atlanta had in the late '80s. I flew out of Atlanta nearly every week on business, and the joke was, they were paving new roads in the subdivisions north of town so fast, that you never had to go home on Friday, the same way, from a trip the way you came to airport for on the previous Monday, if you didn't want to.

But preparations and run-up to the Olympics, and the adoption wave of the Internet into people's homes were two phenomenon that were more or less coincident in Atlanta's life as a city. But their effects on public life in the city were nearly opposite.

The Olympics were a big crapshoot for the Atlanta organizers, and right up to the Opening Ceremony, there was a lot of uncertainty in the city about how it would possibly go, with the local populace. Businesses gave workers extra time off, or let them work from home, to minimize downtown traffic, at government request. There was massive street closure and re-routing downtown, huge temporary changes in MARTA, major restrictions on bringing private cars into downtown, etc. Just on the transportation issue, many people felt that the Games would be a flop, because local people, who as you observe, were never much for coming into the city if the didn't have to do so, wouldn't want to fight all the changes to transport, as well as all the international crowds.

But that really didn't happen. Atlanta's citizens really came out for the Games, literally. They came outside, in summer heat and humidity, and they came downtown, on buses, and trains, way, way beyond all expectations. Black and white, red and yellow, they came out, and they came together, in greater numbers each day and night, right up until the bombing. And the bombing probably shook people more, not because of the people it physically hurt, but because it directly flew in the face of the new, unexpected experiences of hundreds of thousands of Atlanta area residents, who'd just been downtown, en masse, for a few days, fairly enjoyably. A new civic spirit had just begun to emerge, and suddenly, bang! It was gone, and shortly thereafter, the Olympics were too.

What stayed on was the Internet boom. As the home of BellSouth, and Hayes modems a little to the north in the suburb of Norcross, Atlanta had a big chunk of U.S. telco management, technology developers, and even physical telecommunications infrastructure. But the Internet wave happened so fast there, and on such a crappy technical base as dial up POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) technology, that it really caught all the professionals flat footed. In the suburbs, the demand for additional POTS lines to homes skyrocketed so fast, that BellSouth wound up building new switching centers for 8 Lucent 5ESS switches it never planned for, before 1992, which were barely in place by 1996. Inside and outside I-285, but in what you and I would call the greater Atlanta area, BellSouth grudgingly pulled more than a million more POTS lines than its original population growth planning had told it to expect to need, because of dial up line demand. Even some of the bigger CLECs put in fiber and copper of their own, because of delays BellSouth had. And above that, downtown, BellSouth and commercial CLECs were delivering high capacity digital loops on channeled OC type circuits, in similar volumes, just as fast as they could get tunnel space and borrowed technicians from other telcos. The whole 56K modem craze depended on digital circuits to the ISP end of things, and BellSouth was literally ripping out functional POTS bundles downtown, which it had just put in a few years earlier, and/or reprovisioning copper and circuit support, where possible, as digital, all through the 1990s.

That experience so colored and changed the thinking of senior BellSouth executives, that when they went into Brazil, in the mid-90s to upgrade the phone system there, they argued stridently for wireless buildout there, rather than land line, and they heavily influenced international investment in Brazilian telecom, in that direction, too. Even though the cell equipment of the time was marginal for Brazil's needs, BellSouth was hell bent on avoiding the land line capacity planning and building issues that they just been seeing bubble up under them in Atlanta. And for a while in 1999, you could get better cell service in Rio, than you could in Atlanta, partly as a result of all that, although in Atlanta, you could get a new POTS line, whereas you probably never would, in Rio.

Back in Atlanta, local ISPs were coming into business like roaches. MindSpring was the early leader, but soon BellSouth itself, as well as a dozen more POTS based ISPs came into being, the smallest of which had 8,000 or more lines in their POPS, by 2000. And that of course doesn't count the growth of business Internet use on higher capacity circuits, or the slow buildout of cable companies coming online as high bandwith ISPs, at the end of that first wave.

I very much contend that if the Olympics had happened, absent the concurrent wave of Internet adoption in Atlanta, or perhaps even if Internet growth had been the kind of mobile phenomenon we see today, that the public life of Atlanta might be far different today.
But once the people of the 'burbs went home, and got their Internet connections there, they had even less reasons to come downtown. And they never really did, again, even as a fraction of what they all did, for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1996.

And so a lot of the post-Olympic public space development that was talked about never really materialized. The Aquarium was built, but they never did find a place for a hockey rink downtown, and eventually the NHL left town. Development of new public space downtown stalled, and even existing parks and public facilities weren't made available to organizers of public events by the city, because of concerns about traffic, which the Olympic experience had proved could be intelligently managed. And a whole lot of public bond money went into fixing the sewers, by blasting big transfer tunnels through granite bedrock, way under the city.

But nothing stopped or much held up the Internet in Atlanta. Even as staid a body as the Georgia Public Service Commission meeting in the State capitol there, many times pushed BellSouth and other regulated entities for more circuits, more switching, more fiber, and on faster schedules. For a while there, you couldn't be a BellSouth lawyer at a PSC meeting, and identify yourself orally, without being booed from the public gallery. But even though BellSouth knew that a lot of that demand for facilities was just ephemeral POTS hysteria, they weren't successful arguing against it to the PSC, and if I now had a nickel for every DSLAM put in from 1990 to 2000 in northern Georgia, that is now running at 10% or lower capacity, I could probably fly to Rio, first class.
posted by paulsc at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2013


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