I still had hot blood when I first noticed how Silicon Valley technology was curdling the sweetness of metropolitan life. Walking home up Madison Avenue one evening, I found myself strolling behind a strikingly shapely young woman. As a defense-of-marriage conservative, I felt only the Kantian aesthetic emotion, of course—a feeling of disinterested pleasure, wishing for nothing beyond itself—though perhaps I felt it with more urgency than the dyspeptic Enlightenment philosopher. But then I found myself following the woman with keen desire—the desire to know just how unspeakably nasty she was going to be to the poor slob she was breaking up with on her cellphone, careless of who might hear how mercilessly she was putting in the knife and twisting it slowly, slowly, in public.
I don’t remember what she said, though I will never forget the tone, especially since now we all hear it daily on the street from young women as shameless as Lady Godiva in parading their naked, unfeeling narcissism as a matter of course. I do remember thinking what the young man at the other end of the phone must have been saying and feeling: But the closeness we had—the good times—my loyal love for you—they count for nothing? Less than zero, said her icy reply; reproach yourself with ever cherishing feelings you thought so fine.
That was in the era when I felt sympathy edged with contempt for people speaking on cellphones in the street. They are such slaves to their job that they can’t even take a walk without having to receive an order or give a report to their bosses? They have no moment to be a flaneur, to think their own thoughts or even enjoy the kaleidoscope of city life without fearing the phone will ring? But now some of the anonymity, privacy, and dignity of urban life has evaporated. We hear the deals as they are made, in all their trivial calculation. And all of that dispells the evocative mystery of crowds—where we all watch the interesting spectacle of which we are a part, but we leave each other alone—that used to be central to the magic of city life.
Thanks to technological advance, so superb are the electronics of my gramophone that I would rather listen to the Julliard Quartet in my dining room than pay $100 to hear some no-name in Lincoln Center, who will insist on adding to Mozart and Haydn something by a no-name composer, as a token of relevance. In my private concert hall, no one wears perfume that triggers instant asthma, or rattles the program pages in boredom with the effort to appear cultured. Yes, I am missing the opera; but I do not need to see Iago masturbate. As for the Metropolitan Museum, how I wish that Philippe de Montebello were immortal!
Now Amazon has swallowed Whole Foods and will revolutionize urban gastronomy in ways as yet unforeseen—as it has revolutionized retailing in only a decade. Already, under the reign of Silicon Valley e-commerce, wherever I take a taxi in Manhattan, a double-parked UPS truck on one side of the street, with a double-parked FedEx truck on the other side, slows the de Blasio- and Bloomberg-clogged traffic maddeningly further, as they unload their inexhaustible cornucopia of the practical and the precious from China to Peru, all flowing from your cellphone. Of course the uncompetitive shops that made my Manhattan strolls so interesting are going and gone. The Old Curiosity Shop? That’s now on eBay. Grandma’s Hand-Knits? Try Etsy. The greengrocers whose artful sidewalk displays of fresh fruit and flowers used to stop my New England mother in her tracks in admiration are fast vanishing. Now we have banks and chain drugstores. Manhattan looks like London, looks like Paris. What is lovable is a pedestrian city, which soon will exist only in Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Edith Wharton.
I understand that much of my complaint is generational. New Yorkers’ lives continue to focus on their kids’ nursery schools, their gentrifying neighborhood and its daily vicissitudes, the fashionable rock bands of the moment, the latest Brooklyn restaurant, with (alas!) music. And so much of today’s brain-power work must be done face-to-face, not over the web. Still: dying small shops, dying classical music, dying cinemas replaced by streaming video, dying anonymity and privacy, rotting pre-World War I subways, exploding public-sector debt and pension obligations? Yes, Doctor Johnson rightly said that a man who is tired of London is tired of life. But is there a point at which there is not enough of London, or of New York, to be tired of?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images