Every time I go away and leave the computer behind, and disconnect from the world, I come back refreshed, raring to go, write more often, only to face the dreaded problem of plenty. I don’t know where to start. And even today, I feel that way as well. But you have to start somewhere, so why not talk about the thing which kept me awake on my long journey back home — everything center of the universe eventually fades into the background, no matter how great, rich and robust it might be.I was in Venice, Italy. It was my first visit to the city, and it was primarily a trip to indulge in my passion for long exposure photography and enjoy some solitude and good food. And just like every place I visit, I try and read a book about it. In case of Venice, I downloaded My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon, who happens to be one of my favorite writers of police procedurals.
While the book was a classic case of a famous author cashing in on their loyal fan base, there were some bits which stood out to me. Especially this quote about the city with no roads, no cars and no traffic that pierces the sanity of your soul. It is a city of lanes, (400) bridges and byways, all above water. It is a city where you walk everywhere. I was clocking about 7-to-10 miles a day and have gotten rid of the nagging back pain, just by doing that.
Because we are forced to walk, we are forced to meet. That is, every morning the people of Venice are constrained to see, walk past, walk along with their neighbors. This leads to casual conversation, to the exchange of information about the world or about their personal lives, and invariably it leads to either un caffe or un’ombra, and those in their turn lead to meeting more people and more conversation.
Even in my six-day stay, I got to know everyone in the hotel, the cafe and the various places where I would sit and meditate on the meaning of things, with a camera (proverbially) whirring away. Every morning walk meant saying buongiorno to the street cleaners, gondoliers who were getting ready for business.
Walking in close proximity makes us more aware of others, and perhaps more human. Perhaps, when the folks from Facebook look to finding soul for its platform, they should consider leaving the confines of their plush offices and just randomly interacting with people who are not them.
I sent a friend an email marveling about the city, and the ingenuity of humans to turn a swampy lagoon into a place of infinite beauty, that for a long time — from the Middle Ages to Renaissance to the Crusades — was the center of the universe, with commercial and naval power that was unmatched. I mean imagine beautiful palazzos built on wooden piles deep into the islands, and in turn, building a city that floated on water — a remarkable display of human capability. Of course, that marvel is also a reminder of the frail and fleeting nature of success.
Just ask Motown. Or Pittsburgh. Or Manchester — Cities that were at one time had the might of nations. Today they are hollow shells of their gilded past. In comparison, Venice remains a beautiful, if somewhat crumbling reminder of the past, reduced to a spectacle, left on the planet for the entertainment of selfie-taking hordes, and self-indulgent photographers like yours truly!
When I visit the past — for that’s precisely what cities like Venice and Florence really are — I am reminded of the present, and ascendent regions such as Silicon Valley, will one day find themselves reduced to spectacles.
The regional advantages are often overcome by others, more powerful and innovative. Somewhere new becomes center of the universe. Humanity rearranges itself into concentric circles of success and apathy. The question, however, we should ask ourselves — what are we in Silicon Valley going to leave behind?
January 16, 2018, San Francisco
Photo courtesy of NASA via Wikipedia.