Thursday, May 22, 2014

Telephones and Typewriters.

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that this chart drives me crazy.

It comes from Cambridge-data-impresario Robert Winters, and it looks at who votes in local elections, broken out by age.  This data is from 2009.

What does the chart say?

Well, specifically, it says:
  • 9 percent of 27-year-olds will go and vote in a local election.
  • 59 percent of 80-year-olds will go and vote in that same election.
More generally, it says:
In a city dominated by young people, where the median age is 30.2 years old, and where the largest age cohort is the 20-44 year olds, the people who dominate the political process are much, much older.

What does this mean? 
It means that when a forward-thinking advocacy group like Livable Streets — whose mission is to "challenge people to think differently and to demand a system that balances transit, walking, and biking with automobiles” — presents its work about how to reuse the streets of Cambridge and Boston in a way that diminishes the dominance of the automobile and elevates other cleaner, greener modes of transport like bikes and walking, the first three questions from the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association audience are focused solely on “those crazy bikers” who make it more dangerous for all of us, as if bikers were simply the problem, and not an integral part of the solution. 

Sometimes, older people just don't get it.  The future's going to be different than the past, in significant and good ways. In cities like Boston and Cambridge, a new generation of inhabitants is tackling these challenges head on, by redefining the urban realm, re-imagining decision-making processes and re-prioritizing the public -- and private -- spaces that we share.

This new thinking argues that the bell has finally tolled on a the American pattern of consumption where everything must be designed too big for its actual use.  There is a call to wring out the cloth, and shed the excess water weight.  This new generation is working on it and using whatever tools currently in the toolkit.

A primary tool, of course, is the smart phone. Its tremendous information-gathering and sharing power shortens the distance between demand and supply, making it no longer only the purview of major companies to achieve system-wide efficiencies. Now, in the much more random world of day-to-day human interaction, constantly connected citizens are doing the same. What the Ford assembly line meant to the 20th century, Airbnb means to the 21st.

The notion that we can share things without diminishing our identities or our status is so refreshingly profound that it actually amounts to a revolution of the American psyche.  More significantly, it is a spirit of sharing generated not through poverty, dearth, want and need, but one that flourishes in conditions of wealth and privilege.  These two factors mean that its appeal should not only linger but remain quite broad based, since no one's ox gets too violently gored.

It points to a new way that the backbone of this country's strength — the great American middle class — can continue to provide political stability and economic opportunity both domestically and internationally while not being on a self-serving collision course with the needs of future generations here and around the world.  This is not an ironic statement.

In light of the huge changes underway, I find it increasingly obvious that those of us, myself included, who grew up in the era of telephones and typewriters will find it nigh on impossible to wrap our minds around the ideas and visions of the Google-ized generation.

So I’ll end with a question: when a septuagenarian starts complaining loudly about the impact all these changes will have on “his parking spot”, we should … ?