We Sold Our Souls for a Turkey Sandwich
Photo (partial) by Ricko found on FlickR.com
There was something grotesque and depressing about that fake deli that might well have been built on the site of a long-ago actual deli owned by the area’s original German immigrants, and of the image of those colorful condiments trapped behind glass, so close and yet so far away.
Interestingly, there was an earlier, equally radical, and also technology-driven alteration of our urban environment beginning in the years immediately after World War II. In the US it was called “urban renewal”, and from the moment the first spadeful of earth was turned for the first grand civic project, it was greeted with glorious hosannas.
Using a combination of eminent domain, legislative fiat, tax incentives, and forced population transfers, urban planners constructed futuristic housing developments and sleek shopping areas that replaced old ethnic neighborhoods from Singapore to Paris to Dublin to Chicago.
Some of the obliterated areas were fragrant and rich in culture, and others were dilapidated and malodorous, but it is indisputable that historic buildings, blocks, farmers markets, and entire Little Italy’s, Jewish Quarters, Greektowns, and Chinatowns, complete with restaurants, commercial buildings, small family-owned shops, and irreplaceable family homes, many featuring unique and richly ornamented architecture, were, in a matter of days, reduced to dust.
In the countryside, an analogous process plowed under some of the world’s most fertile farmland and the songbirds and creatures that dwelled in its margins, only to be replaced with sprawling shopping malls, housing developments, and expressways, the better to connect the new urban centers with each other. Some of this development was badly needed, and some was horrifically ill-conceived, but in either case, much of our unique and indigenous culture was steamrolled, paved, asphalted, and macadamed to death.
All of this struck home for me a few years back, when I spent a couple of days on business in the downtown area of a medium-large American city that had, after several waves of urban renewal, lost any semblance of its former self as a vibrant Mississippi River boomtown. Most of its old buildings had long since been flattened in favor of the kind of sleek corporate headquarters that have, depending on the architect, either brightened or blighted many American cities; others had been razed for parking lots or for new sports stadiums and temporarily fashionable condos and housing complexes.
For better or worse (and some of the new buildings were indeed beautiful) the city now looked like any of a hundred other American cities, its original and indigenous character irretrievably lost. Like the wood rat (aka “pack rat”) of legend that steals shiny bits of jewelry and replaces them with twigs or pebbles, something beautiful had been stolen, and something else vaguely characterless and ersatz had been left behind.
It was a raw and windy couple of days, and the fact that the downtown area was nearly deserted seemed to make the streets that much colder and more sterile. Before heading to the airport, I ducked into a local deli for dinner. As I entered, I could see a large cubbyholed wall stacked with one-gallon jars of bread and butter pickles, banana peppers, giardiniera, pickled cauliflower, calamata olives, giant green olives, cherry peppers, pickled onions, jalapenos, artichoke hearts, and hearts of palm.
It was a scintillating vision.
So I ordered a turkey and Swiss sandwich and asked for some spicy giardiniera on it, and some Greek olives on the side.
“No can do,” the clerk behind the counter told me. “Those are just for decoration.” I objected, but resistance was futile: It was “corporate policy.”
Those jars had dwelt there, unopened, for years.
So I consumed a tasteless sandwich with deli meat that might as well have been dematerialized from its original corporeal incarnation, then reconstituted by means of a matter replicator as “turkey” and combined with a splurt of mustard and a simulacrum of Swiss, and hailed a taxi to the airport.
But there was something grotesque and depressing about that fake deli that might well have been built on the site of a long-ago actual deli owned by the area’s original German immigrants (just as housing developments named, for example, “Fair Oaks”, have inevitably bulldozed an old stand of oak trees to make room for the parking lot), and of the image of those colorful condiments trapped behind glass, so close and yet so far away. It has remained with me all of these years as a fitting symbol of how technology has created a culture that is more tantalizingly accessible, and yet more distant and lacking in savor and flavor, than ever before.
Of course, digital culture is only distantly analogous to urban renewal, in part because many of those post-war housing complexes, having been deemed to be unlivable, have themselves long since been torn down. But in both cases, new technologies were enthusiastically embraced, and the old ones too quickly consigned to the past.
The point is that the old neighborhoods and landmark buildings that were destroyed to make room for the new buildings are gone forever. So too, I fear, are many of the elements of our culture that digitization is either wittingly or unwittingly wiping out. Precious parts of our civilization are being ground into digital dust, and we will never get them back.