The LA Times Goes Tut-Tut-Tut*

Oh, give me a break, Christopher Hawthorne!

What would a wireless Los Angeles look like?

In the sunniest scenario, the one sketched out rather persuasively by the mayor and his speechwriters, the plan would not only help make online access more affordable and available but expand the public sphere, turning every corner park and sidewalk bench into a possible home for the kind of coffeehouse culture that has always been a defining feature of urban life. It would send a message that the digital realm is a kind of public utility, as accessible as water and electricity.

A more likely effect, frankly, is a noticeable increase in the odd sort of public, shared alienation already on display in cafes everywhere, with people packed in next to one another but staring into their own individual screens. And given the sort of Angelenos who are most obsessed with being always connected, wireless access might fall far short of creating a new kind of social interaction or a revamped notion of communal space in the city. Ultimately, it might do little more than let a thousand PowerPoint presentations bloom in the open air.

The only thing worse than a religious scold is a secular one.

I happen to be writing this in a coffee shop right now, a Starbucks in Rolling Hills Estates.  I’ve visited every Starbucks in the South Bay and San Pedro, and quite a few in LA, including one in Little Tokyo where I waited for the jury, but this one is the most convenient, the biggest and equipped with the most electrical outlets.   Lately I’ve been working at home more, but this environment is almost as cozy.  I talk to people all the time  — brief conversations to be sure, but occasionally more.  I also run into people here, including friends and relatives of my wife and son.  I’ve arranged to meet people — “I’ll be working, you’ll see me, come whenever” — including my mother.

At any given point in the day, I might be the only wi-fi guy, or one of a dozen.  When I used to park here for entire days, I’d note cycles of activity:  Young Moms with their pramfuls of baby in the mornings, ladies taking a break from shopping at mid-day, realtors searching the listings, salespeople doing deals, day-traders, high school kids after 2 (they seem to prefer the noisy frozen blended drinks — so no phone calls then) madly flirting and flopping their skinny bodies on the cushiony seats six to a chair, and the friendly baristas taking their cigarette breaks at the outdoor tables.  I’ve overheard conversations in Spanish, Mandarin, various Arabic dialects, Japanese, Farsi and our native tongue down here, surfer-ese, which of late has taken on some hip-hop overtones. 

I love the idea that I could go almost anywhere in LA, open my laptop and rejoin the blogosphere, and/or do my work.  It completely opens up the day.  How many social and cultural engagements do we avoid because we think we’ll be on the road for too much of the day, out of touch from work?  In wi-fi LA, your life becomes more flexible.  If you know you could, say go to LACMA for an hour at lunch, then stop off somewhere nearby to see if you’ve missed any e-mails from your clients rather than waiting an additional hour to get through the traffic, you’re more likely to go to LACMA, no?  So what if we are “packed in next to one another but staring into their own individual screens….”  At least we’re out and about. The possibility of connection is immeasurably increased.

I don’t get what Mr. Hawthorne thinks we did before wi-fi.  Certainly, the length of the average stay at wi-fi enabled cafes was a lot shorter; and we probably did a lot more drive-through.  Very few of us have the social skills required to have a personal adventure in a coffee shop every day, or the time, unless we have another reason for being there — our work.   You will see much more use of public spaces — isn’t that a good thing? 

No, nothing’s good enough for the reflexive “if they’re enjoying it, there must be something wrong with it” mindset.  To ensure we all feel good and chastened, Hawthorne throws Mayor Villaraigosa’s “digital divide” rhetoric in his face.

But free wireless service doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t afford a laptop. And the structure of the plans that have been taking shape in other cities suggests that ours may not match the populism of the press-conference talking points. The service in Houston may cost as much as $21.95 per month (with possible discounts for low-income residents). San Francisco may offer parallel services, a subscription plan from EarthLink and a slower, free alternative from Google loaded with targeted advertising.

That sounds quite a bit like the digital equivalent of a highway system split between private toll roads and sluggish public freeways. And it raises the question of how precisely to measure civic progress as nearly every corner of city life undergoes commercialization. If you put a drinking fountain on every corner but allow a private company to charge for each sip, even if it’s only a few pennies, can you really make a case that you’re improving access to clean water?

Actually, I think you can easily make that case.

In that sense, what rings most hollow is the claim from the mayor and his allies that universal wireless is designed primarily to help the city’s electronic have-nots. If that’s the goal, why not take full advantage of the fact that L.A. owns its utility poles, turn this into a wholly public project and make access universal and free? The answer, of course, is that cities feel they can’t manage even a moderately ambitious initiative these days without the capital and marketing muscle the private sector can provide.

Strike the words “these days” from his last sentence, and take away the negative connotation from what is, in fact, a rational awareness of government’s limits.  Even the most liberal mayors and governors realized about 20 years ago that the public sector is unable to compete with the private sector, especially when the private market for a good or service is already well-established.  Where does Hawthorne think the cliche “reinventing the wheel” came from? If the point of Villaraigosa’s wi-fi plan is to deliver wi-fi to as many people as inexpensively as possible, of course the city should tap the wi-fi industry!  It shows great common sense! Does that mean the contractor gets to make some money?  Yes!  Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

What moral nannies like Hawthorne should focus on is the city’s procurement process. Who is going to get these contracts and by what process?  How can we avoid the “two shades of blue lights on the Vincent Thomas Bridge” effect?  (The result of a lobbyist-brokered compromise to allow two firms to get the lighting business, resulting in the lights on the span being a slightly different shade of blue than the lights on the towers.)  Granted, Hawthorne might not have the opportunity to opine on the Decline of the West, but it’s the details of this project — the marriage of the public and private sector — where you need to be focused.  

*Edited slightly, 3/12/07

7 thoughts on “The LA Times Goes Tut-Tut-Tut*

  1. Hawthorne doesn’t understand that wifi is good for more than nerds with laptops. There are already wifi VOIP phones the services for which (assuming free or inexpensive wifi) are much cheaper than cell phones. The free wifi in SF is at 300kbps, which would make video streaming dicey, but not VOIP, or normal web surfing. If municipal wifi really took off, there’d be all kinds of things that would be made to use it; twenty dollar thin-iPod clients, streaming music from a home computer, or last.fm; Blackberry-type devices with no monthly charges.

    The best part is the stuff it would kill. Like Starbucks’ T-Mobile wifi service. And the phone company.

  2. Right, of course, Andrew. I was singing the praises of Starbucks but I would be delighted to stop sending T-mobile money every month. I’m going to assume until evidence to the contrary appears that Antonio knows the T-mobile price point and will manage to come in lower. But if Antonio also wants to sell Gen-X friendly CDs on the city’s home page like Starbucks does, okay by me.

  3. I quite going to Starbucks because there are free wifi coffee houses around here. If there weren’t, I’m sure I’d have bitten the bullet (or sprung for EVDO, or a competing service). But I do love me some free.

    Plus, I get the feeling that D4P would respect me more if he knew I frequented unconglomerated coffeehouses. The kind of small business he’d be proud to ordinance to death, some day.

  4. Just yesterday, between meetings, three of us went to Subway for a hasty lunch. Rather than talk while standing in line, one checked emails while another listened to voicemail. I felt more alone than if I had gone by myself. These devices give a new meaning to public discourse.

    I’m not a Starbucks devotee, but I’ve wondered whether its coffee is so strong it eliminates any taste difference due to water quality. Given you’ve sampled so many, is there a discernable difference throughout SoCal?

  5. Interesting question. Just off my memory, I think the flavor in West LA, downtown and Hollywood is preferable to the South Bay, where our water has a stronger chlorine essence and is a bit harder.

    But you might be correct — that heavily burned Starbucks roast could probably be brewed with tailings from an iron mine and still taste about the same.

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