On a recent frigid Sunday, I arrived at a popular West Side brunch spot to find a line out the door. Too cold to wait outside, I had to quickly come up with an alternative restaurant in the neighborhood. Thinking fast, I pulled out my iPhone, opened Google’s restaurant page, and enabled the server to find “brunch restaurants” near my automatically-detected current location. Et voilà—I was seated in no time.
Over winter break, I upgraded from a four-year-old Blackberry Bold to what’s arguably the Einstein of smart phones: the iPhone 4S. Part of what sold me on the phone upgrade was the improved quality of life it seemed to promise. Gone would be the days of wandering up and down Broadway to find the best bagel, or of venturing down to Alphabet City for a vegetarian restaurant I’d learned about via word of mouth. Now, with the 3G network and Siri’s help, I can locate the nearest restroom, subway stop, or Starbucks with the tap of the screen. I can access anything I need within the parameters of Morningside Heights, the Upper West Side, and West Harlem.
Relying on location-based technology raises an internal dilemma for the user that is perhaps representative of a conflict on the societal level: Should the goal of location-based technology be to enable users to locate goods and services within the closest possible radius? Or, should it bring the user’s attention to otherwise unexplored neighborhoods and offerings? On that note, I wonder whether smart phones make for more provincial or more cosmopolitan New Yorkers.
One of my first downloads was the free “NYC Way” app. With a single app, I should be able to maximize efficiency by knowing exactly what time the next downtown 1 train will arrive, which food carts are parked outside the Columbia gates, or where I can find the closest post office. I can also order food and find coupons. My iPhone empowers me to access everything in New York City without having to step outside of my room or interact with another human. The city is, literally speaking, at my fingertips.
The emphasis on location-based technology carries with it the potential to make users more provincial, giving busy Manhattanites—like Columbia students—little reason to travel outside of the area where they live and work for their basic needs and entertainment. But just as easily, apps and buttons can inform us of what lies beyond a single neighborhood by bringing attention to special deals or events, and then providing exact instructions to get there. Instead of using technology as an excuse to continue patronizing the usual list of supermarkets and coffee shops, I would instead encourage using these resources as a gateway to new establishments in our neighborhood and the rest of the city.
In my column last semester, I emphasized the importance of understanding local political issues from varying points of view, arguing that Columbia’s location at the crossroads of West Harlem and the Upper West Side offers a unique opportunity to do so. Through interactions with the diverse cross-section of New Yorkers who live, work, and study here, we engage in dialogue about controversies such as the Manhattanville expansion or Occupy Wall Street, and gain a greater understanding of their complexities. These exchanges can only take place, however, if we choose to immerse ourselves in settings beyond our dorms and libraries.
In my column this semester, I will continue to address urban politics through a local lens by pointing out opportunities to actively engage in the issues, using my iPhone as a tool for discovering new neighborhood joints and events throughout the city. As plugged-in students in New York City, we can make the choice to either become more provincial or to become more cosmopolitan.
My inclination is to stray toward the latter. Show skeptics that our generation will use technology as a platform for greater intermingling and activism, whether that means hearing a prominent speaker at the “LIVE from the NYPL” series or by joining a demonstration organized online, as has been proven possible by protests worldwide and, recently, in New York.
Then, try to glance away from your screen for a few sweet minutes. There’s probably an app to show you how to do that, too.
Jessica Hills is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone studies. Urban Dictionary runs alternate Fridays.