How did we forget civility?

Technology has made us do stupid and inhuman things. Remember when phone calls were matters of personal dignity and privacy?
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Technology has made us do stupid and inhuman things. Remember when phone calls were matters of personal dignity and privacy?

For ten years, we have been particularly bombarded with technology. Great new wealth has come to a few, and all manner of wealth, great and small, has also been lost to many. We have played with excess and excess has played with us. We have felt the soar of confidence and the awful bite of no confidence.The very mind of our attentions has gone to market, as technology has been unleashed upon every person's waking moments, via phone, ipod, text, email, twitter, app, and laptop. It is an unfiltered barrage. We have little bandwidth left of our own reflective time.

As a result, some very stern truths, facts really, have been lost, forgotten, untaught, or trampled in the rush. In some cases, it is courtesy abandoned, in other cases it is contagious self-interest overwhelming the senses and reason.

Today, there is the technological sophistication to watch a first run movie on one's phone, yet to have only the merest notion of manners and no sense that you should have sense. One complexity has overwhelmed another; distraction has deleted consciousness and form.

So, as we head into a new decade, here's my plea to get, or set, a few things straight — reminders of things that were true, that are yet true.

1. Your phone calls are private and you are obliged to keep them so. Thirty years ago there were phone booths to help. Then, of course, you could also stroll safely in public spaces. Now the security of booths and public spaces is betrayed, and there is barbed wire circling your old reservoir. The booth was an act of dignity, not prudery.

No one should be forced to to listen to your cell phone conversation any more than they should be forced to sit through your ablutions. It is a quiet flinch to see adults moving down the street cocked to their phones or talking bluetooth to their breath — oblivious, unnatural, unrelating. Whatever relation might have happened, whatever interaction or notice or acknowledgement has been abandoned — each phone user a kind of tinted-window-up SUV moving through, something unhuman.

2. The sidewalk is for pedestrians, not for bicycles, horses, segways, or scooters. Perhaps it is the unnature of the phone users that has stripped pedestrians of their senses, their rights, their place, their value. No vehicles should ever have a say on the sidewalk. Ironically, it is much worse in Seattle than in New York City, where they would never allow such a thing.

Seattle is a big town, wanting to become a city. Technology has brought the money but not the players and not the dignity, not the people's boots properly on the ground. The pedestrian is the very proof of a city and should have not a moment's fear of some moving machine. The pedestrian is not an accessory but in fact the point, and in any great city or town. It is the pedestrian signalling its health.

When the police move their bike riding to the street, they will better understand and enact conditions to make the road safe for bikes. The horses, of course, already know they should not be on the sidewalk.

3. You were meant to drink your coffee at the coffee shop. A to-go coffee was once no more common than a to-go drink at a bar. The coffee shop was meant to be a break, as in "take a break." At its best, you went where your father went, they asked about the kids and the game, and you were part of something. If you want to see a little of it, try Caffe Senso Unico, on Olive Way behind Pacific Place, where Mario and company set a life every morning.

Technology compresses time to its own clock, to its own rush, so you need to resist it and use some sense. It is madness to carry boiling coffee, tying up one hand, a foolish waste of resources, the cup and lid, unleashed onto a city, the last drips onto your clothes. Protect your coffee shop: Talk to them, look them in the eye. And for god's sake, complain if it becomes a wifi morgue, a fate that may indeed be worse, another death by unrelation.

4. When a store has a sale before Christmas, then your heart should go out to that business, for they are going out of business. But when a store or company discounts at all times, that is a different matter. That is an act of aggression, outside any code of community.

The internet is no naif; it has lured salesmen, marketers, and carpetbaggers to its pitch at a Crusade-like pace. Your modest comforts may not keep track of the effects on stores and streets and towns as their vitality weakens. Continuous discounts have but one goal — domination — for they have lain siege to all the other stores, and they intend to destroy them. There is no other purpose: They have opted for pure self interest, and the hope that savings to you will distract you from the longer consequences. Everyone knew this 50 years ago but in this new rush of time, no one wants to know it now.

5. There has always been an intricate code and ballet to driving a car. But in this new time, the vehicles are zipped and tinted, armed with dvd, speaker, phone, jack, padded as a running shoe, as unrelated as a shark, travelling as its own proof of isolation, purpose and force, its own validation of technology. Courtesy has little chance or hope, for technology has no pact with courtesy, which has become a weakness. Should your left lane suddenly narrow, the car behind will not slow up but in fact speed up and make it clear, once and for time, who rules!

Even the rules have lost some sense as they try to keep up. It is not, for example, possible to safely turn right, as allowed, on a red light. It is not possible to both look left for oncoming cars and still keep a sense of pedestrians or bikes or strollers on your right. It may be an aid to keeping intersections clear but the task of the turn is, in any true sense of driving, a threat and a risk.

6. Digestion is aided by water and oatmeal will keep you regular. How did this knowledge get lost? My friend Alberto ordered coffee for us in Italy and they brought two espressos and two waters. When I went back and ordered, they only brought the espresso. I asked Albert why and he said, they did not think you would notice. (He even told them I noticed.) Italy has a very low rate of stomach and colon trouble and they often credit the wine but the Italians credit the water. They drink it with everything, they never store it in plastic and they always know where it came from. So many apps for your phone, so little thought to your water. (And be careful of purified water; even the supplier admitted to me " it gives some of us a funny stomach.")

And oatmeal, poor oatmeal, that once was a surety to keep you regular, clean the pipes, set you up for a new day, calm the bowels. Maybe it was the sabotage of the instructions: 2/3 cup of oatmeal. No one has 2/3 of anything at 6 am. It is 1 to 3, you can use the toothbrush cup if need be. One cup oatmeal, three of water, the revenge of a different kind of nerd, the digestionist.

7. You must wash your hands. As simple as that, you must wash your hands, five, six times a day, with soap and a clean towel. It is a strange epidemic, the distance of people from their hands. The washing, literally the washing, can stop a virus, block a flu, protect a nation. Yet it may take government intervention to get people to wash. It is a weird late modernism that can distance people from hand washing, when so much of their work involves transmission by hand and hand-helds.

Ah, but you say you don't have the time? In truth, it is not even possible to go faster than washing your hands — or changing the bag in a vacuum cleaner. It only seems so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of