Last week, I saw a great play: Golem from theatre company 1927. Golem is about modern city life, and particularly how it’s been affected by technology. It’s not set in any particular named city, but for me the mix of kebab restaurants, too-cool cafes, and bizarre numbers of wedding dress shops made it feel like Hackney, where I live, and where 1927 are partially based.
That’s not to say that the play didn’t have messages for other cities, or that its creators weren’t thinking about other places. In fact, its last show The Animals and Children Took To the Streets made a big nod to New Orleans, both in the name of “the Bayou”, the neighbourhood where the show’s lead characters live, and arguably in some of its themes of inequality and violence. And one of Golem’s main messages that’s applicable to many cities is what I think is a welcome questioning of app culture.
Apps are great. We all have apps we love, use all the time, and couldn’t do without. But, as Golem points out, it’s undeniable that there are dangerous prejudices embedded in the tech start-up culture that produces so many of them, and which has very active chapters in London’s slightly comically-named “Silicon Roundabout” and New Orleans’ “Silicon Bayou“.
To take one example: Uber. I know lots of people, particularly male ones in their early 30s, who love it. Cheap, quick, convenient. Who wouldn’t like it? My granny, for a start. Golem has a super-cool older relative and so do I. But Uber doesn’t offer her what she wants from a taxi service: advance booking, the chance to communicate with a cab company by phone, and the potential for very good customer service that comes from an ongoing business/client relationship.
And while I don’t face the same logistical difficulties in using Uber that my Granny does, I’d rather not do so, thanks. Instead, in New Orleans I’m very happy with United Cabs, and in London I love knowing that the safe, reliable and knowledgeable black cabs that I’ve trusted all my life and that haven’t let me down once are out on the streets, meaning I feel I can go out when, where, and how I want and know that I can get home – and that’s something I’ll always be prepared to pay a premium for.
But the rise of Uber could mean the fall of the local cab services. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Uber became dominant in London it would change for the worse the relationship that I – and my Granny, other women, other older people, and others who don’t fit the image of the consumers that tech culture can tend to cater for – have with our cities.
So, while I’m by no means anti-technology or anti-app, if Golem’s creators and other voices make us question some of the values and assumptions that underpin new technological developments and think carefully about how they can affect the cultural fabric of our cities, I think’s that’s valuable progress, for London, New Orleans and other cities alike.