Manhattan Institute

Technology vs. Civility

Yes to urban Luddism

Engineers have come up with yet one more keen idea for eroding the quality of urban life. The newest gadget, now sweeping—literally sweeping—Manhattan residential neighborhoods is the leaf blower. Is it really too much work for well-paid unionized apartment building workers to wield an old-fashioned broom to keep sidewalks clean as the autumn leaves goldenly flutter down? When Handyman A finishes blasting away with his gasoline-fueled, two-stroke-engine-powered gizmo, Handyman B takes over at the building next door, and so forth, so that a hundred or so families facing onto that particular block can have their peace shattered for up to an hour, bringing all the annoyance of a suburban lawnmower Sunday without the trouble of driving out of town.

And speaking of driving: do car designers now plan their new models around the sound systems that in Manhattan seem to be as much the vehicles’ raison d’être as transportation? They’ve got them amped up to a power that heralds their arrival from four or five blocks away, even before their vibrations rattle your windows with the ker-thud-thud-thud, ker-thud-thud-thud, ker-thud-thud-thud of their bass line. Unless of course they’re stopped at one of the red lights that Mayor de Blasio uses to slow traffic to such a crawl that all over town wildly honking traffic jams now erupt during rush hours to accompany the mobile boom-boxes. Perhaps city officials could mandate that leaf-blowers operate only during such peak-cacophony hours—though they lacked either the brains or the guts to ban the use of car alarms in Manhattan before the infernal instruments of torture dwindled out of fashion from their own uselessness, just as officials will lack the fortitude to prohibit leaf-blowers from the high-density urban streets where they don’t belong.

You can’t argue with the rationale of back-up beeps for trucks, given their inevitable blind spots. But must they be so loud? And must SUVs have them too, especially when they have back-up cameras, eliminating blind spots—devices that trucks could, and by law should, have too? Do construction vehicles also need such horns, which automatically start blasting as soon as their drivers shift them into reverse—and blasting loudly enough to hear over the noise of jackhammers and pile-drivers? The biggest annoyance from nearby construction projects is no longer the traditional Dig-We-Must-for-a-Greater-New-York racket but rather the maddening all-day, on-again, off-again tooting of the back-up horn of the bulldozers and backhoes as they go back and forth, back and forth, like the Little Engine that Could—and will, by God—for weeks on end!

Here’s a hat tip to the genius who decided that UPS trucks should not only have fore-and-aft blinking lights when they are double-parked outside your building, to alert oncoming traffic that the urgency of e-commerce is blocking their right-of-way, like it or not, but also that the brown vans should beep in tandem with every flash of the lights, annoying both the impeded motorists and the peace-loving neighborhood residents in one fell swoop—or rather hundreds of swoops. What earthly reason did UPS executives have for installing such a feature, other than that they could?

And that brings us to the cellphone. The late Steve Jobs may be a secular saint to some, but to old-time urbanites, not so much. As in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the first few arrivals didn’t seem a big deal. My initial thought, seeing a few early, clunky models on the street, was, What kind of poor slob isn’t allowed to think his own thoughts while walking home without being ambushed by orders or questions from the office? Next, part of the romance of urban life evaporated. No more could you imagine that the girl with the face of an angel might have the mind of a Jane Austen or the heart of a Jane Eyre. “I tried on jeans at Bloomingdales for, like, half an hour, and I’m at 65th Street now. I’ll be at the bar in, like, five minutes. Wait, maybe six. The light just turned green. I’m crossing Lexington Avenue now.” My champion was the ice princess who wirelessly broke up with her boyfriend while walking up Madison Avenue. She kept having to repeat herself, because he obviously couldn’t believe she was doing it—and doing it over the phone, moreover. So she gave him reasons, each more ego-crushing than the last. Less  Jane Eyre, I'm afraid, than Lady Macbeth.

But now even more pleasure has drained out of the metropolitan stroll, past the shopfronts darkened by online competition, as you dodge the oblivious pedestrians, eyes or ears glued to their smartphones. If they are pushing baby strollers, watch out even more: they’re a boon to all mankind, and no one gets in their way. If one hand holds an iPhone and the other a stroller handle and a dog leash, that’s a triple threat. When you see them coming, better step aside. If they stretch across the whole sidewalk, it’s into the gutter with you.

I used to fight the impulse to say to rude passersby, “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?” I no longer have that thought, since it was the parents of the current generation I wanted to say it to years ago. The answer, time has shown, is No. If one definition of civility is the art of living in cities, it’s draining away fast, swirling down the iHole.

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