Screened out and isolated
When a journalist from the German newsweekly der Spiegel recently told me how alarmed she was to find that she was the only person reading off a piece of paper in a Los Angeles café I thought she was overdoing it. “I really felt like some kind of martian, reading my newspapers while everyone else was just staring into their iPhones and gazing at screens,” she said.
I had almost forgotten our conversation until I found myself walking around Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach last week and wandered into a café. As I entered down an open boulevard-cum-corridor, men and women were perched on stadium-style seating (as if attending a lecture) and all were tapping away on MacBook Airs.
The men were in faded T-shirts, with slightly rolled sleeves that revealed well-toned biceps and the odd tattoo, and skinny black denim, rolled just-so to reveal scuffed Alden boots. The women were in similar get-ups with the boots replaced by ballet slippers or some version of a Keds-style sneaker.
Inside the café I approached the counter and ordered a coffee. As I waited for the barista in his artfully groomed beard to artfully pour my flat white into a cup, I glanced around the room. One, two, three, four ... six, seven ... 12 people with their titanium screens flipped open and six of them wearing headphones large enough to cancel out the sound of a 747 at close range. Everyone looked extremely serious – no sunny smiles on this stretch of the California coast. There was little looking up from their screens, a lot of manic typing and even more twisting of stray locks.
What were they all doing? Was everyone working on a script? Were they polishing (embellishing) CVs for upcoming interviews? Were they updating profiles on various social networking sites? Did they have jobs? And why were two people in opposite corners of the room holding their phones horizontally in front of their mouths and chattering into them while also gripping their massive headphones like they were recording a song? Was this some affectation picked up in Taipei or Hong Kong that had now hit southern California? Heavens! I hope not.
While giving my coffee a good stir, the conversation with the der Spiegel correspondent flashed up in my mind and I spun around to see if she was right. Up and down, left and right I scanned the room and the seating area outside. The only paper in sight was a fluffy stack of dollar bills in a glass jar on the counter – there were no copies of the LA Times, no FTs, no magazines and no printed Powerpoints, just angled titanium and back-lit Apple logos punctuating the industrial space. Curiously, the only texture in the whole space was provided by the metalwork and reclaimed wood in the café interior and perhaps the odd choppy haircut: everything else was crisp and sharp and angular and perfect and boring.
I perched outside to study the scene and shake things up. I pulled out my Friday edition of this newspaper and unfolded it across my lap – a girl perched above without headphones looked up, seemingly half startled. I then picked up the paper, gave it a good yank to fold it over and then folded it again to quarter-page size to read the Companies & Markets front page. This stirred more of the titanium set out of their uploading/surfing/ chatting to look around and figure out what that sound was and if it was going to stop. I could see why the der Spiegel correspondent had felt somewhat martian-like – while she was tucking into her daily papers and magazines and exposing her media tastes, her fellow coffee-drinkers were cloaked behind their screens keeping to themselves and revealing little, immune to the clatter of finger nails on a keyboard but so easily disturbed by a newspaper unfurling before them.
I ordered another coffee to go and as I walked out noted that it wasn’t only paper that was absent; there wasn’t an iPad or reading device to be seen either. As I debated whether this was a good or bad thing I went in search of a bookstore. The best I could find was a spiritual bookshop that hardly passed for what I had in mind. There were no magazine kiosks or used book sellers, no chains and no independents. I felt sad for the local residents.
An hour or so later I arrived at LAX’s international terminal and was happy to see some effort was being made to improve the experience. The chirpy lady from Lufthansa suggested I shouldn’t get my hopes up. “They can spend all the money they want on design but it’s not going to change the people working at security or how you’re treated when you enter the country,” she said breezily as we walked to the gate. I grunted in agreement.
Upstairs on the 747 I was greeted by a friendly attendant with an armful of newspapers. “I’m sorry but we don’t have internet connection on today’s flight but would you like a FAZ, Handelsblatt, FT or IHT?” she asked. Around the cabin my fellow passengers were all manipulating their favourite dailies and the world sounded just right.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule