Lost in Space

When I was a student at the university, I frequented a small restaurant near the campus that was managed under the quaint name “Hi-Ho”. Besides sandwiches like hamburger and hotdogs, the restaurant served a daily plate special that was, when not gourmet, at least reasonably priced for a student budget. What was remarkable about this little restaurant was, however, not so much the food as the cook himself who was visible to the public in the open kitchen. He was a middle-aged, Afro-American man who had an incredible memory. Since he had not learned to read, the waitresses did not bother to post their written orders; they simply called out the orders as they passed by the open kitchen. “Three hamburgers–hold the mustard on one, extra mayonnaise on the second and add onions on the third,” you would hear them say. Or: “Two daily plate lunches, no gravy on one.” And so it went hour after hour in this restaurant that seated about twenty people. To this day, I do not know how this man managed it, but I never saw him make a mistake. He heard the orders, organized them in his mind, prepared the meals single-handedly and delivered them to the waitresses with uncanny speed and accuracy.

Unfortunately, such restaurants as Hi-Ho no longer exist, and so today, I sometimes go to Panera Bread where the sandwiches and salads are reasonably priced for a senior budget. The handling of the order is, however, shockingly different. Without question, the young girls who take the orders are extremely polite and well-meaning, but their ability to retain information stands in stark contrast to the Afro-American cook of Hi-Ho. When I give my order, I try to be as clear and precise as possible in order to assist the personnel: “I would like a large Chicken Caesar Salad to eat here, no drink, and whole grain bread.” Then the girl will ask: “Is that for here or to go?” To which I say: “It’s still for here.” “Do you want a drink to go with that?”, she will ask–and so it goes.

Now, I am not suggesting in any way that the personnel in Panera Bread are intellectually deficient, at least not more so than the rest of us today. If we compare ourselves to the educated class of the Middle Ages, none of us measure up very well. It is well known that the Rabbis of late antiquity and the Middle Ages could quote from memory long tracts of the Talmud, and it is equally well known that many of the monks in the medieval monasteries could recite all of the 150 Psalms of the Latin Bible from memory. So the decline of memory in our society has a long history, and to a greater or lesser extent, all of us have been affected by it. My reason for mentioning the particular situation in Panera Bread is this: These young employees are dealing with a situation that is immensely more complex than that it appears at first glance. They are actually dealing with two quite different types of space, and this duality of space is affecting their ability to concentrate on the words of the customer. The end result is an apparent decline in short-term memory.

In his monumental trilogy on the information age, the sociologist Manuel Castells (University of California, Berkeley) has discussed at length the problem of modern technology as it relates to space. Before the rise of advanced interactive electronic communication, space was experienced exclusively as local. I experience myself sitting in a chair at my desk and writing this blog. I experience myself driving my car down Morse Blvd. or dining in a restaurant or discussing political issues with friends. Each of these events takes place in a certain locality, and Castells called this type of space: the space of places. It is the normal space in which we live and breathe, in which personal relationships are established and cultivated, in which ideas are shared and trust in built. The space of places is essential to human beings, but it is limited to particular localities. In contrast to this type of space, electronics–one thinks, for instance, of the World Wide Web–has created a different type of space, which Castells terms the space of flows. This space is not local, but rather global. Movement in the space of flows is immediate and irreversible. Consider what happens when an email message is transmitted to a large number of recipients; it moves through the space of flows instantaneously and can evoke global response. Every one of us has had the experience of clicking the send button on our email program and then wishing that we could retrieve it and make a change in what we had written. Interactions in the space of places, on the other hand, have a totally different character. If we are sitting in a coffee shop talking with friends, we share not only the words, but also the ambience of the shop. We hear the voice tones of our friends, we see their facial expressions, and we can modify accordingly what we have said in the course of the conversation.

It should be apparent that interacting in the space of places and the space of flows requires different quite skills. In the space of places, the individual is required to assimilate a manifold of impressions from his or her surroundings, to integrate these into a coherent understanding of events taking place and to respond in some appropriate manner. Many of the decisions that are made in the space of places are more or less unconscious and are modified from one moment to the next. Furthermore, the decisions are rarely “black and white”; there are many gradations that come into play. In the space of flows, on the other hand, the individual is required to focus very narrowly on certain electronically communicable data and to make conscious decisions about binary possibilities. The computer wants to know: Do you want A or B? Nothing in between can be considered. If you happen to want A1 or B1, you are out of luck! And don’t even think about A1B1 or B1A1, or A3B10! No, it’s either A or B. Either you get your salad dressing on the salad itself or you get it on the side. If you want a little less dressing on the salad itself, a little more lettuce and a little less cheese–well, you get the idea. All decisions are either/or, and this type of thinking carries over into other aspects of life.

The differences between the space of places and the space of flows go, however, even deeper. As Castells points out, human experience and meaning are only possible in the space of places, whereas economic and political power as well as information have been transferred to the space of flows. The split between information and meaning results in a situation where we are acquiring more and more information that is ultimately meaningless to us. And the split between experience and power makes it easy for economic decisions to be made that destroy the lives of individuals because these individuals cannot be experienced in the space of flows. So different are these two spaces that Castells speaks of a “structural schizophrenia” between the two. He writes: “There follows a structural schizophrenia between two spatial logics that threatens to break down communication channels in society... Unless cultural, political, and physical bridges are deliberately built between these two forms of space, we may be heading toward life in parallel universes...” (The Rise of the Network Society, p. 459).

Returning now to my culinary example: We can appreciate the difficulty of working in a fast food restaurant like Panera Bread if we keep in mind the difference between the space of places and the space of flows. This difference did not exist when I left America some 30 years ago in order to work in Switzerland. But it does exist today and it is apparently here to stay. So when I order my salad, it is important that I not give any information before the computer wants it. Speaking clearly and distinctly may be an advantage in the space of places, but not in the space of flows. Struggle as they may to please the customs, the personnel in fast food restaurants will inevitably give preference to the space of flows. Then “getting it right” in the space of flows is critical for their job security. My frustration at the redundancy of the verbal interaction in the space of places is never registered or recorded anywhere.

Bon appétit!

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