Technology: Personal or Public?

“Any technology tends to create a new human environment... Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike.”

Marshall McLuhan

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It’s a worthwhile exercise to periodically consider why the much-maligned personal automobile is, in fact, maligned. The effort will likely yield such adjectives as expensive, dangerous, pollutant, isolating, frustrating and sprawl-inducing. Amazingly enough, however, the advantages of cars used to get all the attention. One hundred years ago, the car’s invention started a transportation revolution while becoming the symbol of American freedom, convenience and progress.

Today, most people have been around cars their whole lives. The magic has largely worn off and the auto industry currently epitomizes the deepest woes of the US economy. Computers and their accompanying innovations, on the other hand, have seized the mantle of progress that cars once proudly possessed. The benefits of computing, and especially the Internet, have produced a worldwide cultural shift that’s at least as enormous as the one cars created.

Computers and cars have plenty in common. Both have an isolating effect—one removes the traveler from the public realm while the other replaces (and simulates) many forms of face-to-face contact. Both cost plenty of money—a lump sum for the initial purchase and a limitless series of repairs, upgrades and modifications. And finally, both became, in different eras, a form of personal expression and a virtual extension of self for their owners.

Cities can’t avoid expressing the effects of widely-adopted technologies. The impact of cars on cities is obvious and well-documented; the impact of computers and global connectivity less so (interest in the latter is booming, though—see Kazys Varnelis and his Network Architecture Lab, for example). Despite their behind-the-scenes nature, one manifestation of computers in urban landscapes seems more visible than the rest—the internet café.

Internet cafés abound in European, Asian and Latin American cities, but are curiously scarce in the United States. They offer a bustling, communal (if not exactly social) alternative to a city full of people inside their homes, alone in front of their computers. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say, but the internet café’s urban presence appears inversely related to individual car ownership and usage. In a society as affluent and individualistic as the United States, it makes sense that many would prefer owning something and fully controlling it instead of paying to use it in public. Like mass transit, internet cafés offer the benefits of use without demanding the steep costs of ownership or the hassle of maintenance, and in a public setting to boot. Reaping those rewards just requires that we relinquish total control of the item in use. In an age when a single hard drive, iPod or email account can store all the data most will ever amass on their computers, we’d do well to recognize that ability as the privilege that it is.

(Photo from Flickr user thw05.)


john does Amsterdam said...

very well put; and made me stop and think for a second - which i love - kudos

Brendan Crain said...

The car and the computer both symbolize freedom and mobility, but I'd argue that the car is still more of a status symbol for a greater portion of society. Perhaps the two technologies represent different types of mobility? The car is definitely more physical, while owning a computer (particularly a laptop) is more about social mobility.

I wonder if being able to recognize the value of a computer over that of a car is a big part of that privilege you reference.

Drew Austin said...

Interesting point. I agree that the car as a possession is much more of a universal status symbol, maybe the quintessential American status symbol.

With computers, it's not about what kind of computer you own--it's about having computer access, having Internet access, and knowing how to use those to one's advantage.

Part of my point here, which I maybe don't say directly, is that in the US that access tends to coincide with ownership, so if you don't have a computer, it's much harder to use one regularly or effectively. This is related to what you mentioned--that being able to recognize a computer's value is necessary in order to really benefit from it.

Katia Savchuk said...

I think the biggest parallel is the extent to which both cars and computers made the world smaller. Cars enabled physical mobility, while computers (or more precisely, the Internet) are not just about social mobility as Brendan suggested, but mobility across time and space, shrinking distances between people and information and between people and other people. Discourse on globalization and technology has touched on the profound effect of this on the way cities are and will be organized - economically, physically, socially.