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Advocate On The Hudson

Transformers: Mastering Our Machines

NYC Loop concept for information centers
One of the candidate designs proposed for replacing New York City's payphone kiosks

The big movie this week is “Transformers”. It posits an intelligence for machines way beyond ours, and a venality that they well deserve. They are also the heroes though, saving us from the bad guys (machines) and restoring order to the universe. They are our best friends, the ones who will come to our aid and figure all this out in the end. These illusions are deeply ingrained into our psyches in millions of car ads and spaces reserved for them to deliver their message re: our place in the universe and theirs. This is one of the clearest examples of the tension which exists between us as people and the role of machines, including the ubiquitous mobile devices that now are now growing out of our palms uncontrollably. Whereas once we needed a bubble, a car, to encapsulate ourselves, now we can do it virtually and re-enforce the wall surrounding us by giving our eyes and ears to it....and our brains.

Our Public Spaces are neither Public nor Spaces. They are physically-dominated, some would say monopolized, by privately-owned machines, operated by private parties for their own benefit, leaving minimal room for the walking public or appropriately-scaled vehicles like bikes. New electric-assist models can change the paradigm by providing much expanded creature comforts on HPV's and peer-to-peer access, which can control costs. Improving the public's access to new forms of public transit and shared rides is an essential use of publIc space. It is currently against the law, for instance, here in New York, the country's most suitable city for this form of transportation, to ride a bicycle with a clean and quiet, ½ horsepower electric-assist motor. Forty foot long stretch Hummers and passenger cars with 600 horsepower engines are permitted though. The public has relinquished its control over its space and it is a catastrophe. Strong steps need to be taken to recover it.

They are one reason why a-sociability is the accepted relationship among us. We do nothing to each other so we are OK. Anti-sociability will bring the police and even over-friendliness can get you into trouble if you are clumsy enough at it, but the prevailing mood is anonymity and gratitude for it. There is no question that unhappy relationships, whether it is with those closest to you, or merely your neighbors, is a vast source of grief to many. Our collective response has been to minimize the extent of our contact with one another, to become accustomed to the casual, even mechanical, “How are you?” and go on with our lives. Life is easier this way.

We accept this condition, as normal, natural and permanent and never reckon the immense effect that this alienation from our environment has on the rest of our actions and our feelings. We understand our status as it relates to multi-ton objects and we show them the respect that they don't deserve but certainly demand. Changing this dynamic can result in other beneficial changes to our surroundings and our place within them. It is as profound as transforming oneself from a consumer to a producer, from a passive element to an active one, turning strangers into friends and leaving the invisible undercurrent of constant dread that surrounds us.

There is the possibility of using a proposed NYC franchise to serve as the armature for a city-wide program of neighborhood-enrichment, improved health and safety, and local economic stimulation. We need to begin to exercise together each day and ride every kind of human-powered device to get around and enjoy ourselves. We also must find ways to activate the care and intelligence of those in our society who are able and interested in helping to guide the children into the world with the tools they will need to have a fulfilling life. Giving the older segment of the population a means to provide some assistance to those in their immediate proximity, rather than signing up with a giant organization, could be the key to unlocking this storehouse of knowledge and compassion.

Providing a hyper-local directory to goods and services can aid in many people's survival. If you can paint somebody's apartment or walk their dog, cook them a meal or tutor their kids in every subject from the basics to electives like music and dance, there is an opportunity there. Information, communication and transportation are all elements of our lives that need to be dealt with. Having access to those of your immediate neighbors, who happen to have skills or other resources that can help you to navigate these systems, would be wonderful. Transit is our most leveling activity. Shared rides are part of shared lives. We can expand on this aspect of our lives and lay the groundwork for its expansion. Parents with school-age children are familiar with this process, but it seldom extends beyond the immediate event. The goal is to erase all of the standard definitions, that keep those one step removed, from ever being able to enter the circle.

What is needed is a local facility. The current franchise for what has previously been called “Payphones”, with the addition of free WiFi and allowance for an information terminal, could be the next destination for those looking for transport or a tutor, an exercise or walking partner or help in any aspect of life-navigation. It can also be a wonderful work of art or design, unique to that location and perhaps even representative of it, generated from talent within its immediate vicinity. This new resource can be developed at the most local level and serve as the catalyst for the rest of the “public” i.e. “shared” element of our lives, going into the future. Charging bikes and introducing neighbors, these facilities can be key factors in liberating us from the cold anonymity of our current existences.

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