It seems like such an innocuous idea. What if there was a shared space set aside, as a matter of course, in private and/or quasi-public places such as airports, hotel lobbies, college campuses, etc.? It's not a radical concept by any means, suggesting simply that a small area be created where people can sit down, plug in, unwind, or whatever -- without being charged a fee, required to purchase something, or mandated to show identification to enter.
Yes, it's merely that old-fashioned notion of the commons cropping up again. I was just reminded of its ongoing relevance while searching for an electrical outlet to plug in my laptop at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. The airport contains almost no place to do this, at least where one can also sit at a table. The few options I could see were all behind restaurant barriers with signs saying that the tables were reserved for paying customers only.
As I looked longingly from the periphery, a middle-aged women sitting at a table near an outlet saw me and asked, almost conspiratorially, whether I'd like to share the other side of her table. "It's what people do in Europe, anyway," she said with a smile. "Thanks, that's very kind of you," I replied, as I settled in and powered up.
It was all quite seamless. The waitstaff at the restaurant didn't hound me to buy something (not that there was really anything all that edible on the menu, in any event), since I was at a table with someone else who had already ordered food. In the process, my table-patron and I chatted about our destinations, work, and the like. Nothing in-depth or too personal, just good-natured table talk of the sort that one might have expected to engage in during the not-too-distant past in a public place.
The difference here, of course, is that this is not a public space, at least in the legal or political sense. Airports, malls, stores, universities, and even government buildings are generally private spaces that have the appearance of being "public" even as the public is only invited there at the discretion of the property owner. This may not seem like a dramatic point, but it is this invisible declaration of owned space that largely determines whether one has rights of free speech, association, or even just to be present without condition.
Such spaces are rapidly shrinking in American life. Putting aside the bigger-picture enclosure and privatization of the commons on the scale of parks, pastures, forests, urban downtowns, and roadways, even the smaller-scale commons of a community area in a seemingly public place is hard to find anywhere. The convivial ethics of the picnic table, park bench, bus stop kiosk, and similar exemplars don't exist very much inside the spaces of consumption and conveyance that increasingly dominate our daily lives.
And with that loss we also lose opportunities not only for political speech -- just try exercising your First Amendment rights in a shopping mall -- but for simple exchange among fellow humans who meet as relative equals sharing the functional aspects of a small space together. For instance, as I sat down at the now-liberated airport restaurant table -- gingerly, due to a sore knee -- the woman kindly gestured to me to hand her the plug to my laptop so that she could plug it into the wall and save me from the chore of limping around the table. Nothing monumental, merely human.
I find myself increasingly longing for such bygone moments. When I take my kids to the playground, other parents sit on the benches staring at their digital devices rather than talking to one another about their kids' schools, activities, etc. The children themselves play versions of games like hide-and-seek, but are texting one another in the process about the whereabouts of the seeker. Just the other day, I saw a man riding a horse on the side of a rural road, and he was talking on his cell phone in the process (one of the Four Horsemen, perhaps?).
It's these smaller moments of relative dehumanization that are the most disturbing. People don't really talk much to each other anymore, despite (or due to) all the networks in our midst. Students on my campus will pass one another, and the conversation often looks like this: "Hi, I just texted you..." "Cool, I'll text you back later..." Inside, my mental tape says: "Why don't you just stop and talk to each other RIGHT NOW?!"
Okay, back here at the shared table, I'll put the larger implications of alienating technologies aside for a moment. The task of reclaiming public space in general, and likewise recapturing the texture of what constituted basic human exchange for millennia, will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, I can at least enjoy a reminiscent moment at a nondescript airport table.
As my table-patron got up to leave, I thanked her again for her kindness. Almost immediately thereafter, another traveler noticed the outlet nearby, much as I had done earlier. "Would it be okay if I sat there on the other side of the table?" they asked. Somehow, the shared-space vibe had spread. "Of course," I answered. "That's how I wound up here in the first place..."
And here I still sit, awaiting my flight, relishing a small moment of communal conviviality -- and wondering what it might be like if the world was reconfigured, even just a little bit, based on the simple and utterly mundane values of the community table.
For more by Randall Amster, click here.
For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.