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Are We Wrong About the Future of Digital Life? September 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Digital life offers the promise of no friction in our lives; that is, no difficulty in doing anything ordinary, such as shopping, meeting people, or traveling.  There is no impediment in our lives.  I have written about the idea of friction before, thinking that at least some friction is necessary for us to grow and develop as human beings.

Further, science fiction author Frank Herbert had some very definite ideas about friction, now over 50 years ago.  He invented a protagonist named Jorg X. McKie, who worked for the Bureau of Sabotage as a saboteur.  At some indeterminate time in the future, galactic government became so efficient that laws were conceived in the morning, passed in the afternoon, and effective in the evening.  McKie’s charter was to toss a monkey wrench into the workings of government, to slow it down so that people would be able to consider the impact of their rash decisions.

But let’s fast forward (or fast backward) to Bodega, the Silicon Valley startup that is trying to remove friction from convenience store stops.  Rather than visit a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop, patrons can pick up their goods at the gym, in their apartment building, or anywhere that is willing to accept a cabinet.  Customers use their app to unlock it, and their purchases are automatically recorded and charged.

It turns out that people are objecting.  Loudly.  It turns out that the bodega (a Hispanic term for the tiny shops) is more than just a convenience.  It is where neighborhood residents go to find out what is happening with other people, and to find out what is going on in general.  In an era where we are trying to remove interpersonal interaction, some of us also seem to be trying to restore it.

My point is that maybe we want to see our neighbors, or at least hear about them.  And the bodega turns out to be an ideal clearing house, so to speak.  I’ve seen something similar in northern Spain, where the tiny pinxtos shops serve pinxtos in the morning until the late afternoon, then transition into bars for the evening.  We visit one such place every morning when we are in Bilbao.  They don’t speak any English, and my Spanish is limited (and no Basque), but there is a certain community.

That is encouraging.  Certainly there is some friction in actually having a conversation, but there is also a great deal of value in obtaining information in this manner.  We establish a connection, but we also don’t know what we’re going to hear from visit to visit.

I wonder if there is any way that the company Bodega can replicate such an experience.  Perhaps not, and that is one strong reason why we will continue to rely on talking to other people.

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