We live in a patchwork quilt of new and old.
Here in Indiana, the dim bulbs in our legislature are busy fighting old constitutional wars and introducing measures to protect us against non-existent threats. Let teachers impose prayer in schools! Make them teach religious beliefs in science classrooms! Protect Indiana from the existential threat posed by “Agenda 21”! (The latter is a reference to a decades-old, utterly toothless pro-environmental UN resolution that the paranoid are convinced will destroy American sovereignty and perhaps, Strangelove-like, sap our “manly juices.” Or something.)
Meanwhile, in precincts less terrified of reality and the future, innovative ideas are making urban life more convenient. We just returned from New York and a visit to the son who lives there, and once again were impressed by how livable the Bloomberg administration is making the Big Apple. Of course, as Bloomberg noted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers pay high taxes and thus have a right to expect good service for their money.
It isn’t only municipal services that are making New Yorkers’ lives more convenient, of course. Technology and the clever use of ubiquitous cell-phones have given rise to new services that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. While we were in the city, we made use of one of them, called Uber.
Those of you who are familiar with Manhattan know that taxis are everywhere–at least, when it isn’t raining. Outside Manhattan, however–in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, for example–the familiar yellow cabs are far rarer. People living in those boroughs have access to the subway and to bus service (unlike the situation in Indy), but they don’t have the added option of raising an arm and hailing a cab.
Uber is a service that allows you to order a car easily. But it is much more than that. You download an app. Should you need a car, you enter your location and your desired destination; a return message tells you where the nearest Uber cars are, how long it will take for the closest one to reach you, and how much the ride will cost. If you decide to proceed, you tap in your order, and pre-pay the fare and tip (credit card information having previously been entered). The app gives you a photo of the driver and the license-plate number, so you can identify the vehicle when it arrives, and it maps the car’s progress on the telephone screen. In our case, we watched as the little dot representing the car moved toward us on the screen.
When the trip was over, Uber sent an electronic receipt to my son’s smartphone, confirming the route and charge.
Our driver was Maria. Her car was new and clean, and she was pleasant and willing to explain the virtues of the Uber system from the driver’s perspective. She could work when it was convenient–she just turned on her phone to signal her availability. She no longer worried that she might pick up some mugger or worse–few predators will provide their credit card and identifying information.
The service was more expensive than a taxi, although not excessively. It probably doesn’t make sense in places where hailing a cab is easy. In underserved areas, however, its convenience is well worth its cost.
I don’t know whether Uber will make it–whether this new use of technology to make transportation more convenient will catch on and spread. But I marvel at the ingenuity of whoever created the system. If we look, if we open our eyes, we can find similar inventive efforts all around us. In fact, if we just take a moment to think about it, so much of the taken-for-granted activity in our daily lives would have been incomprehensible to our younger selves. From our smartphones to our laptops to our IPads and Kindles, to thermostats that communicate with us, to cars that stream our music….In earlier days–and not all that much earlier–these were the stuff of science fiction.
We have a choice. We can embrace our newly enabled existence, these gadgets and breakthroughs that ease our days, and we can use our increased productivity and saved time to enrich our minds and souls, to solve problems and help others. Or we can spend that newfound time looking for UN agents in black helicopters, and repudiating Darwin.