The last 18 months have been rough. I suspect a lot of people would agree with me there. The internet is heavily implicated in this current slurry of horrors. So those of us who thought the internet was a neat idea and who have devoted our professional lives to making more of it have been feeling the conflict pretty keenly. It is suddenly apparent that throwing a lot of money and engineers and dopamine and tribalism together in a bucket to see what grows, grows exactly the sort of hypertrophic monsters easily influenced by enemy powers that dystopian sci fi warned us about all along. The hubris of “Design can change the world!” where design means creating software for connected devices, has collapsed into the regret of “Design can change the world.”
Everyone forgets the internet began as a military project. But then, so did frozen orange juice concentrate.
I’ve learned the best way to deal with being overwhelmed by the worst of human behavior amplified and interconnected at scale is to run basic errands in my neighborhood. When I shut my laptop, I find myself in a creaky 1884 Victorian house separated from a green swath of dog park by a hectic little street on the cross-town bike route known as The Wiggle. The only sign that we are in a 21st century technological dystopia is the occasional bro on a Boosted board flying by among the bikes.
I buy my groceries at the same family-run grocery store I’ve shopped at forever. It persists in view of both a Safeway, which I avoid except for extreme 6am coffee deficit circumstances and a Whole Foods, that I visit with guilt, infrequently, for specific fake meats and one variety of amazing bread. And I spent the day there taking refuge in the air-conditioned cafe area when San Francisco was 106°.
The people who run Golden Natural Foods know me. They ask about my dog. They tell me what my husband has been buying while I was out of town. The entire store is about the size of the Safeway deli department, yet seems to have one of everything. This makes it very clear that 9/10 of any major supermarket is corn syrup and questionable flower arrangements.
When things get too weird and terrible in the collective consciousness, it’s very grounding to unplug and take a short walk to buy a cauliflower from a neighbor. This is a human-scale transaction. I know the people, I know the terms of the exchange. We both benefit. And I know that the act of buying a cauliflower will not result in cruciferous vegetables following me to my Instagram.
There is a hardware store on the corner with a TARDIS-like basement, good for paint, minor plumbing repairs, and picture-hangers. And next to that, up until recently, was a dry cleaner called Snowbright Launderette.
Visiting the dry cleaner was my favorite errand. The manager achieved that rare form of extreme retail friendliness that feels genuine. Always a smile. Always an enthusiastic inquiry about the day. I could redeem any blah Saturday afternoon by dropping off sweaters or picking up dresses. He not only had a treat ready for my dog, but he stocked several varieties to ensure that every spoiled picky pet found something to its liking.
A couple of months ago, the neighborhood Facebook group reported that Snowbright was shutting down due to a dispute with the landlord, investors on the other coast, not members of the local community. This was a business that had been in the same place since 1963. A blow to the neighborhood.
Sure I could use an app. There’s an app to summon semi-anonymous gofers for laundry, meals, groceries, weed. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from isolation. But what would I gain? What is any of us doing with the extra time the convenience supposedly spares? It’s just one less excuse for human interaction and one more gaping hole on the ground level. So many choices and so few options, especially for the people who can’t afford the luxury of a remote controlled digital life. The city is crashing.
The loss of the friendly dry cleaner hit me harder than the book store, the coffee shop, and the local bar that folded within the last year. With a little digging around I found the manager on Facebook and sent him a note to thank him for his service. He replied. With all that closure, at least I got mine.