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Archive for February, 2010

Spring is here, according to Gladys. After a little more than two months of winter vacation, she began laying her bluish eggs again on February 6. Her eggs are bigger now–almost the size of store-bought Large–so at last we can use them in recipes without worrying about how the cake will turn out. They look so beautiful lying on bright red bubinga shavings that it’s almost a shame to bring them in from the henhouse. But I get hungry.

Odd egg out

Forrest, meanwhile, still refuses to lay. When Gladys is busy laying an egg, Forrest stares at us through the sliding glass door with bored irritation. She spends most of her time chasing birds and squirrels out of the yard. Yesterday she and Gladys kept two crows at bay for half an hour. The crows would perch on the fence staring at the chickens, knowing something really good must be in a yard so well guarded. But every time they dropped down from the fence, there would be a chicken running at them full speed, head low. So they would retreat back to the fence to wait, staring down at the chickens in the small yard, completely ignoring the two acres of undefended land immediately behind them.

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Urban Coffee LoungeIt seems appropriate to start this conversation while sitting in the Urban Coffee Lounge (UCL), an independent coffee shop with a clear view of Starbucks across the street. Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz maintains in Pour Your Heart Into It, owes its success as much to giving people a place to meet and share ideas as it does to the quality of its coffee. Co-authored with Seattle writer Dori Jones Yang, this Starbucks history book appeared more than ten years ago, before the drive-through windows, the Safeway outposts run by non-Starbucks employees, the instant coffee (gasp!) in packets, and other tragedies that Schultz swore would never happen under his watch. Notwithstanding these complications, the importance of bringing people together is still true, even if it is a little truer at the coffee shop across the street from Starbucks these days.

When Schultz joined Starbucks back in 1982, the company was still focused on selling beans and equipment that its customers would use at home. But he recognized that there was a larger and more profound problem in America than just bad coffee. People no longer met together with friends and neighbors as they had in the past. Suburbs carried us away from cities and towns, televisions and air conditioning pulled us inside and isolated us further. The need to connect remained, but the places to do so were in short supply.

The success of Starbucks has led not to fewer independent coffee houses, but to more of them. Add to this the increasingly ubiquitous access to high-speed data connections and the mainstream adoption of social media, and what we have been experiencing in the last 20 years is not so much a transformation of culture as a reversal of cultural deterioration.

It was at Juanita’s UCL that I met Jack, a retired architecture professor from the University of Hawaii. He was watching a group of teenagers who were talking with each other while at the same time texting and IMing other friends. What got his attention was the way they pulled the two conversations together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Jack is working on a book about small town communities. About how they have disappeared and re-emerged through the decades, surviving to the extent that they adapt to short-term change while continuing to address the timeless and fundamental requirements of a community. Needless to say, the sight of a bunch of kids talking and texting at the same time fascinates Jack.

Not long after meeting Jack, I saw that the school bus in Juanita Village drops students off directly in front of the Starbucks entrance, and half of them go straight in. Others head over to UCL, and I like to imagine that when they start texting in the middle of their in-person conversations, they are talking to friends across the street.

Coffee tasting at UCL

Cupping preparation

Meanwhile, Jack recommends a few architects and books for me to look into, so I start my homework with Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Published ten years before the introduction of Facebook, the book is nevertheless relevant in the world of social media with lessons that apply to any community structure, whether physical or virtual: Do not over-design based on pre-conceived notions of what people will do; Resist the pressure from your developers to have every detail worked out in advance of construction; Recognize that community structures and their occupants thrive by changing together, and changing constantly. Twitter may have started out as a way to answer the question, “What am I doing?” but users happily ignored this restrictive textbox label and the medium evolved into an ongoing dialogue about what people are thinking and what is happening in the world.

Vipin Singh, director of engagement marketing at World Vision, frames the issue more or less this way: “Isn’t social media really just traditional communication done through nontraditional means?” Looking at emerging technology through such a lens, even the most outlandish concepts can suddenly be seen as rational, normal. People who don’t regularly use Twitter, for example, think that bringing a stream of tweets onto your television screen is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard of (barring New Coke). They believe that the Twitterverse is a ridiculous world in which people impulsively tell each other they are standing in line for a latte. But what is really much stranger is the way most Americans spend their evenings today, watching mediocre television programs in the isolation of their living room. Imagine experiencing the same programs accompanied by your best friend’s snarky comments, your brother’s bad jokes, or the oohs and ahs of fans watching simultaneously across your time zone. This is not simply a better way to experience entertainment; it is actually much more like the way things used to be. The way people experienced entertainment together for centuries before television made us lonely.

We tend to think of technology as liberating us from toil and risk, of giving us more control in an unpredictable world. The truth is that, more often, new technology simply liberates us from the constraints of old technology.

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