The Dark Side of Technology in London and New Orleans

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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.

What I Learnt About London And New Orleans In Istanbul

One of the great things about writing this blog is that I learn about London while thinking about New Orleans, and about New Orleans while thinking about London. It’s not just about place, but also about a process.

And I never said that this process couldn’t be applied to other cities too. I think about other ones as well, ones that may also seem very different at first glance but which might have some similarities with London, or New Orleans, or both, once you start to think about it.

Shanghai. Kolkata. Liverpool. New York. Lima. Harbours and deltas, money, gods and colonialism. In this light, I was interested to hear about the work of sociologist Alice Mah a year or so ago, who has written a book about “empire, capitalism, casual labour, and radicalism” in Liverpool, Marseille, and New Orleans.

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But recently, thanks to a vist there, I’ve been thinking most about another one of my favourite cities: Istanbul. It’s important to me as it’s one of my mother’s favourite places, and if you want to think about harbours, gods, empire or radicalism, or lots of other things, it’s a good place to be, physically or culturally.

Furthermore, though Istanbul may be a long way from London and an even longer way from New Orleans, there are bridges between the Turkish city and the British and American ones I usually write about here.

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One of my favourite venues in New Orleans is Cafe Istanbul, in the New Orleans Healing Center on St Roch and Rampart. Meanwhile, my area of London is home to what I’ve heard described as the largest Turkish population outside Turkey.

There is a lot that could be written about Istanbul and New Orleans and London and what they share. Visit The Museum of Innocence for a good start. But there’s one thing that I saw in Istanbul the first time I went there that has stayed in my mind and that I want to mention.

The Serpentine Column, says my guide book, “came from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where it was dedicated to the god by the 31 Greek cities that defeated the Persians at Plataea in 479BC”. As you can sort of see in this picture, it’s shaped like three intertwining serpents.

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It’s a beautiful, ancient piece of art, but what struck me most about it, which you can also get a sense of in the picture, is how far below street level it is. Or rather, how far “street level” has risen in the couple of thousand years since the column was brought to Istanbul by emperor Constantine I, when it was already the best past of a millennium old.

Istanbul is a city literally built on and out of shared history, traded culture and, perhaps most of all, things people have brought there and let fall. Just like London and New Orleans perhaps.

How London Went Wild For Pepsi

This week I did something unusual, which is actually quite usual in London – and in New Orleans too.

It’s springtime here, but maybe not as we know it. Cherry ripe, burning bright, in the forests of the night…

Instead of admiring pink blossoms as I might normally be at this time of year, I entered this fantastical fantasy land – yes, it was that pink, and that tree is made of solid dark chocolate.

An abandoned Christmas panto stage set? Selfridges’ food hall gone to seed? No, actually a promotional exercise for Pepsi Max going by the beguiling moniker “The Cherry Rooms”.

We entered under a soft spray of the sticky stuff, nibbled leaves as we listened to gentle tinkling music via headphones (which makes everything taste sweeter, apparently), and the experience culminated with a steaming glass of ice cold soda topped with a marble-hard liquid-nitrogen frozen version of the fruit itself (my favourite, as it happens).

One big bad advert? Yes. Fun? Hell, yes. And, like many things that are fun in this town, it reminded me of New Orleans.

First, the generous quantities of tasty food and drink – and let’s not forget that more than one cola hails from the American South. Second, the fun and sheer zaniness of it all.

And third, the reminder in the uncomfortableness of a promotional exercise for a sonewhat objectionable substance posing as a theatrical/artistic event that culture can’t be separated from money and commerce and politics, however much you wish it wasn’t so.

You can interpret that in New Orleans terms how you like – meanwhile, for now, I’m happy with the sugar rush.