Two years ago I got a wonderful HTC Android smartphone, but last year I decided to cancel the subscription and went back to my old cellphone. My old phone has better sound and is much easier to answer, hang up, and dial than the HTC phone or indeed any other smartphone I've tried. I rarely play mobile games, and I'm never without something to read on the subway — I almost always have a programming manual or piece of non-fiction in my pack, and for that matter I still get the Wall Street Journal in paper (it comes free with an academic on-line subscription). I was glad to save \$60 a month in connectivity fees, and I haven't minded using the Android only offline or occasionally with WiFi. My Verizon Wireless cellphone plan is \$30 a month for 100 minutes and 250 text messages, and these days I never exceed the quota.
A few weeks ago I was headed to a breakfast meeting on Bond Street. Google Maps, to which I turned the night before, gave me its always reliable and accurate map and travel times, and I arrived at the Hoyt Street Station in Brooklyn and walked to the address on Bond St. in about two minutes.
No one was there. There was also no café there. I then remembered that there was a Bond St. in New York, too, but couldn't recall exactly where. The woman in the subway booth had never heard of it. Time was short. I knew this Bond St. was in lower Manhattan somewhere, but getting from Brooklyn to near an imprecisely known New York neighborhood by subway involves a certain amount of intelligent gambling. I took the train back to 14th St. and 7th Avenue, but various people working at that station hadn't heard of Bond St., New York, either. They also had no suggestion as to how I might find it. In the old days, the people in the subway booths and the track workers seemed to know every street in the city, but apparently those days are gone.
Passing strangers also knew only of the Brooklyn Bond St. I went out of the station for a cell phone signal and called the MTA's help line, which is entirely automated now. It put me on hold after failing to understand my instructions. After ten minutes, it directed me to look on the internet, which of course I couldn't do, and then hung up.
Finally, a young man with a smartphone took 30 seconds out of his day and found Bond Street for me. Of course! It's one block below Great Jones Street on either side of Lafayette! I cross it on nearly every walk I take to Chinatown, and am always in a good mood when I do because the name Great Jones Street always makes me happy. I hustled there on foot — the man with the smartphone was amazed that I didn't want to go by subway, but that would have been much more complicated. I made it to the breakfast gathering an hour late, but still in time to meet a most interesting person. I had the sense that my persistence in getting to my destination was an omen of gaining a worthwhile acquaintanceship.
It's clear that without some sort of connectivity, I cannot make up for the erosion of public intellectual infrastructure that is now normal in the city. Many people just don't hold the same amount of information in the brains that they — that all of us — used to. Of course, subway workers still can't necessarily use their smartphones underground, and as a result they have much less information than even ordinary passengers do when we stand near the exits. These days I don't travel all that much to unfamiliar places, and having a smartphone or connected tablet is still not as urgent for me as it was a few years ago, but I have the sensation that that will change soon.