Sometimes you want to go Where everybody knows your name, And they're always glad you came; You want to be where you can see, Our troubles are all the same; You want to be where everybody knows your name. — Cheers theme song
A few days ago the dry cleaners who moved into my building over a decade ago, shut down. The pandemic’s pause took a heavy toll on their business, and it became virtually impossible for them to continue. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye. We didn’t know each other socially, but we were sociable — we knew about each other’s lives, health, and travels.
I had an easy familiarity with them made doing business, pleasurable. I became their customer just a few days after another long time cleaner – Phil — retired to take care of his ailing wife. Phil and I had become friends — talking baseball. We even caught a Giants game together.
Today, someone from Mulberry’s is going to come and pick up my shirts. They will pick it up from the front desk. I won’t know their name. I won’t know what they look like. All my interactions with them will be through their website — pick up, drop-off, complaints, and payments. Everything will be a transaction.
Back when taxicabs were normal, I was familiar with many of the dispatchers and taxicab drivers who would carry me around San Francisco. Some of them told me their stories. Some would come back to pick me up after my visit to the hospital — even though they didn’t have to. They knew my name and I knew theirs. When Uber came around and cabs went into a decline, the human interactions I had during my rides died with them. Uber was a data-enabled, network-based convenience. There was very little room for getting to know a person. Everything became a transaction.
There is very little room for humanness in transactions facilitated by the network. I wonder if the real cost of convenience is sacrificing the humaneness. Instead of the banter with the neighborhood corner shop, we get stuff delivered from Amazon. Most of our goods come via e-commerce platforms. We won’t have a favorite salesperson at our favorite department store — soon there won’t be any department stores left anyway.
We are addicted to convenience, nonetheless.
Today, I was thinking about our future post-pandemic reality. A contactless future is going to become obvious. With the retail and restaurant sectors struggling and shrinking, we will start seeing the places which make us part of a society, a neighborhood, humans begin to go away. A dry cleaner here, a coffee shop there. What will remain of society? It is easy to think of the local shop as a business, but in the end, their nearness, their familiar closeness, their physical proximity gives us landmarks that create context and give us bearing for our lives. They turn a building into a home, a neighborhood into a place that builds memories. All of these little services give us texture as humans. They are also a chance for us to come together, not separated by income, but as two parties that need each other.
The transactions via an app are just that — we don’t know the human behind the data, so we are happy to rate them one star if they don’t meet some bullshit standard of ours. Our actions can have big consequences in this quantified society and lead to Data Darwinism. In comparison, in real life, we catch ourselves, before berating someone or leaving a snarky one-star Yelp review. Well, as long as we are decent people, our anonymous online utterances aren’t real. Are they?
In reality, the local lives in many parts of the world have been in transition for the past two decades. Amazon started by gobbling the independent book stores. Big box retailers snacked on mom-and-pop stores. Panera, Starbucks or Chipotle replaced the family-owned restaurants. The shoe repair shop is an Aesop. The corner store is now a Wells Fargo ATM. The color of life, the connection between the cleaner that leads to a baseball game is impossible.
And it will be very soon. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the inevitable has happened — and we have fast-forwarded into the future. The network-enabled everything reality has been pulled forward. And with that, we have increased the pace of becoming post-human.
As the sign at the grocery store checkout says — “We Recommend You Use A Payment Method like Google or Apple Pay to avoid contact with the PIN Pad” Now that we’re all a health threat to one another, avoiding contact through our apps could mean losing true contact as well. Soon, the only person left to know is the UPS driver. That is until drones and robots start doing the deliveries.
June 14, 2020. San Francisco
This was originally published as my newsletter on June 14, 2020