Monday, June 18, 2012

When the free book shelf gives me some insight

The Ann Arbor District Library has a rack of free books that I peruse while I’m waiting for my tutoring students to show up. I rarely find anything I consider valuable (there’s a reason they’re free, you know), but one day I stumbled upon Cities in a Global Society, a volume of the Urban Affairs Annual Review, edited by Richard V. Knight and Gary Gappert, published in 1989.

You know what else was published in 1989? Me.

I’ll read just about anything with the word “cities” in the title but I thought it would be especially instructive to see what people thought of urban areas and their role in the world at large when I was just a little babe.  And here it is:

“First of all, I must confess my irritation at all parafuturistic models of the world based on hyper-communication technology, with models of billions of human beings, in megacities as well as in the most remote villages, linked to integrated computer systems feeding all possible information ranging from the fall edition of the L.L. Bean catalogue to the listings of the Tokyo Stock exchange. If this is the Global Society we have in mind, forget it.”

So, just for fun, I googled those two examples.
They’ve got some comfy slippers on sale at L.L. Bean,  and the Tokyo Stock Exchange certainly has some snappy web design. This poor fellow didn’t believe the internet was going to happen. Furthermore:

“Like all people who have taken up and continued using microcomputers, of course, I am quite happy about this choice; it has been stimulating in many ways and it has expanded my horizons. But what I mean to say is that this had been far from a revolution in the way I interact with others, in my view of the world, and in my contacts with the rest of the planet.”

Oh, Pietro Garau, I wish I could say the same. Unfortunately in the twenty-some years between my zygote days and now, things have changed.

In reality, he’s my favorite writer that I’ve read so far in this book. The others are rather dry, overly general, and lacking concrete proof, while his essay, “Third World Cities in a Global Society Viewed from a Developing Nation” is fresh, usually insightful, and if not concretely at least creatively backed up. I love him for turning up his nose at the idea of computers changing the world. I can picture him sitting in an armchair by a crackling fire, telling me with a charming Italian accent that people are people, and they’ll always interact in the same way, and these silly machines are just tools.

Yes, and also by the way Pietro Garau has a facebook.

…and a Twitter.

…and a Google +.

Well, I’m not going to put the man in the stocks for it. It’s not like he could continue denying the internet after it already happened. I wasn't much enthused with the idea myself, way back then (not in the zygote days, a little bit later). As a five-year-old I told my parents that when I grew up, I’d get a job in which I never had to use a computer. And now…I’m blogging, designing websites, and perusing GIS maps.
The point is not that technology is evil anymore! It used to be, at least for me and Pietro, but it’s not anymore. It’s here, it’s our life, whatever. Nobody’s going back to the old days of letter writing and evenings by the fire and newspapers, ugh.  Nobody much appreciates it when I express nostalgia for them, either (“aren’t you supposed to be, you know, young and hip?”). I’ve conceded to the technological investment and proficiency required by my career, and I get just as nervous as the next when I lose my cell phone.

But a very wise friend of mine, and graduate of the Urban Planning Master’s program at UM, said something along the lines of “maybe it’s our responsibility to make sure humane forms of living still exist.” And that’s what I think it’s about. All this stuff in the last twenty years has made many aspects of our life easier. We don’t have to work as hard to access information, to communicate at a distance, to share media and ideas. But there’s no free lunch, and we pay for it somehow. We forget, usually, that we still have to do the work, except now we’re working at different things. We have to work at protecting our identities, at retaining our conversational skills, at reviving the cities that the technological revolution forgot, at forming close and supportive groups of friends, at getting out of our chairs and running around, at maintaining vital neighborhoods, at making sure everyone has access to this great wave of new resources. 

Perhaps a fair trade. Or at least the best we’ve got right now.

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