Last month I attended a one-day conference hosted at Amazon’s conference center in the South Lake Union area of Seattle. There’s a tech industry psychic hum in the streets there, just like the entertainment industry hum that runs through anonymous looking three-story office parks in northern LA or the legal hum that saturates certain blocks in downtown Portland. The office workers getting their morning coffee look focused and unencumbered by family or community commitments. They are men and women, and stylish. The pinup shirt wearing, punk rock programmer dude and the carebear gothic tenderqueer have both been disciplined by three tech recessions since the year 2000. The clothes are less formal and structured than the norm for, say, finance, but there is a look and bright colors are a risk.
Right across the street from the Amazon campus, a forest of huge rainbow glass-walled skyscrapers that hold the back office of the everything store, there is a humble red building. It’s a sex toy boutique with an old-school porn screening room. I find this delightful.
When a platform goes away, especially when it has just left, it is hard to preserve memory of what it looked like when it was healthy. Especially things that you might not think of as platforms. Take phone calls. When the platform was built (not with lines of code but with redwood and creosote and copper) it was too expensive to use as a social network. Later, with home phone service and party lines, it got closer, but it wasn’t private enough. Once digital switching and billing and private home service came into being, there was a glorious period in which phone calls were welcome. Infrastructure to support the network sprang up, like answering services and phone booths and cordless phones. Friendships and relationships were built, distances shrunk.
That golden age was long gone by the time I was a kid. The phone system was becoming overwhelmed by telemarketing. Small breakdowns in the system were everywhere. For example, when everyone screens their calls using an answering machine, getting someone on the phone could take a full minute, much slower than in the era where each call was too expensive to waste on a cold call. Phone booths were always vandalized and often didn’t work. By the time that cell phones came around and changed the paradigm again, the stereotype of the Millennial that hates talking on the phone was well ingrained.
That same arc plays out over and over, for as long as humans have or will exist. Letters through the postal service, the bulletin board at the laundromat, philosophers at the agora. There are situations where these media survive long past when the rest of the world has moved on from them. Letters and phone calls still maintain relationships in prison. Astronauts swap movies on thumb drives on the International Space Station.
The porn store represents a node on a very particular kind of retail platform. That platform is rapidly disappearing, in no small part due to the work of Amazon. On that platform, you exchanged cash for a physical good. The store knew nothing about you, or where your money came from. You didn’t know anything about where the good came from. Somewhere out there, you could buy almost anything.
That platform didn’t exist everywhere. In cities where the power of the city government was finite and the size was big enough that there was some undesirable area where a sleazy, taboo business could exist without neighbors complaining, there could be remarkable freedom. In most places, the power of the local government could keep them out. If the government couldn’t do anything, customers could be harassed.
You can’t really go back. As much as I miss the good parts of healthy local retail, and as much as I worry about what will happen if the right wing succeeds in enforcing repressive suburban values onto the internet, internet retail does work better for most people in more places than local retail did in the late 1990’s.
But I love that these powerful symbols, one the last of its kind, the other the worldkiller, face each other on Westlake Avenue.