Sunday, May 7, 2017

In Which Old-Lady-Typist Shakes Her Fist and Shouts into the Wind

I’m currently reading a novel called “Startup” by Doree Shafrir, a semi-satirical jaunt through the inane world of tech startups. I’m not going to do a full review of the book here because I haven’t quite finished it yet, but I did have some thoughts on its supremely shallow main character Mack, his ridiculously overvalued app, and tech in general. Bear with me now, because this is related: Yesterday, Mr. Typist managed to lure me out for a walk to our local Big Brand General Goods store. This is a store that I have walked to many times over the years, and for many of those years, it’s been a pleasant, quiet walk. Mellow. Uncrowded. A little traffic here and there, nothing unmanageable. But recently I’ve begun to notice that there is more and more traffic along the main road, cars are getting noisier, faster, and more liberal with the horn-leaning, and more and more bikes are whizzing by at record speed, their riders shouting at pedestrians and generally being a-holes. 

About two thirds of the way to Big Brand Store yesterday, I started to have a stimulation-overload meltdown. It was horrifically noisy. The once untrodden street was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with pedestrians. Cars were zooming dangerously over the speed limit. And what finally pushed me over the edge was the unbearably shrill shrieks and screams of partiers on a “beer bike” whizzing by just as semi blew over the bridge and honked his horn. At that point, I actually burst into tears. Mr. Typist led me down a slightly less noisy side street and we trudged back home, where I closed the blinds and sat in my blessedly quiet apartment for the rest of the afternoon, lamenting the loss of my once-sleepy, pleasantly shabby, un-gentrified fisherman’s neighborhood, before Big Tech moved into this city like a plague of locusts and devoured all affordable housing and small businesses.

I understand that this is not a new or original complaint. This is the most common story in the book. The loss of my neighborhood and countless others like it is the price of progress. It’s inevitable, it’s a foregone conclusion, it’s Just the Way Things are. But my feelings about it amount to more than just annoyance or short-sighted resistance to change—it is actual, genuine grief.  It hurts my heart. It makes me feel alienated and lost and sad. It’s been said that all writers work has one central, spiritual theme, and for me, it’s always been the search for home. And I feel that the home I have cultivated here in this neighborhood, which I have lived in for almost fifteen years, has been obliterated. It’s not coming back. Thousands of out-of-state tech workers continue to pour in, houses are getting snapped up for cash, razed by the dozens and replaced with four-thousand-dollar-a-month “efficiency apartments”, luxury sports cars are speeding down side streets at the behest of Waze, endangering pedestrians and killing cats, and wealthy hipsters flood in on the weekends, elbowing out residents on the sidewalks and guzzling seventeen-dollar herb-infused cocktails at uber-trendy bars that used to be mom-and-pop storefronts. “Well, Ms. Typist,” you may say, “you live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. You can always get away on a weekend hike!” Not anymore. Our once-pristine and lightly populated trails have been overrun, and driving to get to them is a gridlocked-choked nightmare.

In “Startup”, Mack’s app is all about “maximizing” human beings. It tracks user’s social media, e-mail, Fit Bits and other electronic devices, seeking information on their mood through emojis and keywords. It aggregates the data, detects patterns, then sends the user reminders tailor-made to their biorhythms. Do you get a blood-sugar crash in the afternoons? The app will ping you at around 2:00 p.m. to suggest a light snack. Are you peppier in the mornings? The app will send you a message to take a brisk walk after you wake up. It represents an absurd level of human micromanagement, and it’s a total privacy nightmare. However, somehow Mack manages to secure, or so far appears to have secured, twenty million dollars in funding for this idiotic “tool.” All I could think as I was reading this was that we don’t need any more innovation, disruption, or optimization. We’ve hit peak everything. We’re done. We’re maxed out. We can track literally every emotional, intellectual and biological function. We’re drowning in social media. There are hundreds of meal delivery services, errand services, ride choices, and bio-trackers. We have access to all of the TED talks we can handle. There are no longer any meaningful improvements to be made. So what is all of this tech doing? How much better can any “innovation” really make our lives? None of what we already have has made us happier, healthier, or less lonely. Is one more social medium platform or dubious box delivery service worth the loss of our communities? I get that I’m just shouting into the wind here, but I really needed to share my sadness and grief with someone. I miss my neighborhood. Thank you for listening, dear readers.

In the interest of not ending on a total bummer, here’s a Simon’s Cat. (Buddy loves a rousing game of “Hide Under the Blanket and Chase The Hand”.)

--Kristen McHenry

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