A couple of day ago, I took the ferry from Larkspur in Marin to San Francisco to meet with Yule Heibel, whom I have known through her blog for more years now than I have known some of my local friends. Yule writes extensively on her blog on urban matters, from architecture to the lure of shop windows to pedestrian traffic patterns, so naturally, she was hoping to take in as much of what San Francisco could dish up in the space of a few hours we were going to roam about as she could get. Unfortunately, what we both didn’t count on was how much of a tourist I am in the city, which made me into an inept guide for helping her locate the pulse of urban life in the city where Tony Bennett left his heart (and some sculptured versions of it all over Union Square, it seems).
I haven’t been on the ferry in years, but when I boarded, with the hoards of parents with kids and older folks, all traveling on leisure, rather than commuting at this late hour in the morning, I remembered the delight of this mode of transportation in the Bay Area. It’s a short hop from Marin to the city, but the scenery, especially lit up by the bright summer sun, sometimes oddly filtered by the shifting fog around the Golden Gate, seems to go on forever. I sat on the ferry, delighting in the scenery, the soft cool breeze, the glint-strewn surface of the water, until my attention was drawn to the large family groups with a bevy of kids sitting nearby. The parents, fiddling with their smart phones and the other adults on their laptops and clutching Nooks and Kindles, that I got, but what struck me was how the kids sat silently, their faces hovering around an iPhone. Not one of them talked or said anything to each other, let alone carry on a conversation, or even banter or ague, with their parents. It was almost as if I were watching ghosts whose presence in this world is but an echo of where their true lives are.
It occurred to me then, like never before, because normally, I too am constantly dipping my attention into the endless stream of data flowing through one screen or another of my tech gadgets, that “Houston, we have a problem.” It suddenly crossed my mind that this next generation, twice removed from mine for whom communication in childhood was always contextual, that is face to face within the confines of a shared actual space, will know almost nothing about the dynamics of space/place. Oblivious to the scenery as these kids are, their attention both narrowly focused on a flat screen and dispersed by the streaming of games, messages, videos, will they even care about such things as “livable cities”? Urban design, community building … what will these concepts meant to them in the living spaces of the future?
I normally don’t engage in doomsday scenarios as I speculate about the future, because the past shows us to be resilient and inventive, and always largely ignorant of variables that in the end affect the outcome of things, our thinking limited in general by the the fixed place of the present, but there I was, bobbing on the ferry in the glorious sun of the summer solstice and seeing, for the first time, a dark band at the horizon.
I thought about how much we are losing in the short span of a couple of generations, even as our technologies are leaping past our visions and abilities to harness them. I though about Rome, and how within a couple of generation of a civilization, of a citified way of life, supported by agriculture, another form of “civilization,” the world went dark into the poverty, the ignorance and the brutal horrors of narrow-minded dogma of the Middle Ages, as if people had forgotten a set of skills, from cultivating the land to communicating ideas, that were common place before.
But that’s not likely to happen now, is it? Not with all the information at the tip of our furiously typing hands. YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter … they will always be there for us, and always free for the taking, won’t they? That glow of the iPad or iPhone screen will always burn bright won’t it? A light by which to watch virtual environments, from scenery to cities, grow more complex and magnificent, while real cities come apart at the seams of their infrastructure and through a lack of awareness and political will to rebuild them.
The ease with which we move in our virtual lives, I believe, will have a huge cost in the end. But then, as I said, I do not believe in doomsday scenarios. It’s just that I think I am finally waking up from the long nap I had in the gated community designed and tended by a fading and much-frayed Enlightenment, to which I refer here, ironically enough with a link about it on Wikipedia.
As for meeting Yule Heibel and then walking with her through the streets of San Francisco, where we compared notes and shared experiences with the added tone-changing note of an actual context, well, the ultimate irony of it is that this would not have happened, had it not been for the Internet and our passion for the ever expanding boundaries of the Internet.