What is so great about free Wifi anyway?

When I hear that the hotel, library or the café I am going to has a free unlimited wifi, a tingling sensation goes through me. Oooooh. Free Wifi! However silly that may sound, it is surprising that a technology which is so immensely popular can still bring about a feeling. But why?

You would think that we got used to it now. The first laptops with Wifi (iBooks) came into existence more than a decade ago now. Wifi had spread like wildfire, mostly as a means to connect to the internet, appearing in libraries, stations, cafés and hotels. With time, more and more people started setting up wireless networks at home too, to connect to the internet but also to connect printers or sending movies to TV sets. It is everywhere!

But only a few weeks ago, when Steve Jobs presented Apple’s project for new offices in Cupertino to the City Council, an excited council member asked if they could get free wifi in exchange for their approval. They did not get it, the company considering it the job of the city to install free wifi if they wanted it, but it is humorous that the request pops up. Why does it still get people’s heart racing? People who want their emails and Google Maps on the go generally have smart-phones, which work just find without Wifi. Offices and homes with computers generally already have their own Wifi networks. So what good is wifi elsewhere really?

I do not think it is what it actually does is that important anymore. Wifi has become a feeling, just like climate control. Just the idea that I could open up my laptop and send an email, or look something up in wikipedia, or book a flight for our holiday makes me feel happy. It is the accessibility of the outside world right then and there. Of course the mobile phone can do a lot, and we are very impressed, but It is not the same thing. What makes Wifi so special, is that we are used to computers being on desks with a spaghetti of cables hanging out the back and with wifi we are receiving an email or a Facebook message right then and there, lying in the grass if we feel like it. It is still amazing.

Of course this should all have become a mobile thing, and it is, but it is the snags which keeps the shine on wifi. The mobile phone still has a stigma to it that we might get ripped off (because we crossed a border somewhere) or that it won’t work (too far out of town, there is no reception in the carpark, on that metro-line, or you are with Bouygues…). Wifi does not have that stigma (despite not being parachute solid), when it works it just works. Like the perfect temperature, it is all around us, and we can feel at home. Even if we do not use it.

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Academic Progression

Every once in a while some graffiti lingers around in my head, waiting for a place to be archived. Perhaps it needs to be integrated into my worldview, or perhaps just discarded, or perhaps neither of the two, but classified amongst the other funny tidbits I have come across. And then there was this little piece of academic (semi-)obscenity, written casually but clearly on a wall in the academic Latin Quarter. Yes. Funny at first sight and perhaps even a little insightful…

It is a play on words with Descartes‘ famous maxim –Cogito ergo sum– only a few streets away from his Parisian address. Descartes had come to the discovery of this maxim after a profound philosophical doubt. “I think, therefore I am”, or “I am a being which receives impressions”, which had become the cornerstone on which the rest of his worldview was to be based. And with that, Descartes became the father of modern philosophy.

Fast forward a few hundred years and everyone knows both him and his maxim. But the time of grand philosophical structures has passed. Mocking a basis for a structure of knowledge and affirming ones own existence through a very personal experience is what this quote does. Coïto ergo sum. I have sex, therefore I am. No grand truth, but the subjective experience of living; the full charm of Existentialism. If this was the same young man who used to clamour “Freedom is for Animals”, I think we can safely assume he is back in business, and feeling a whole lot better.

Temptation in a box

Every once in a while you see a situation which just can not end well. Whatever direction the unfolding chain of events takes you in your head, it always seems to go badly. Or worse. And it had come around again. This time, all it took was a simple cardboard invitation by the phone in the hotel room: Playstation available. Now any rational person will argue that you can just ignore it, just as you can change the TV channel from indecent material, but I feel that that fails to take into account the full scope of human psychology. A playstation. Here. Hum. That looks like a cloud drifting our way, it’s not such great weather out there you know…

Of course not everyone would be confronted with this problem. If you are in the hotel on business, all your thought process has to do is balance the re-reading of tomorrow’s presentation with a quick spin of Gran Turismo. Professional as you are, you quickly realise that you will be fine with few hours less of sleep. But that delicate balance does not work to well if you are there with your significant other. After all, even just the fact that you are in a hotel already suggests that you are out of your usual routine, that it is a moment of togetherness. You could even say that it is the stuff of the adventure of the relationship. And that, somehow, does not translated well into understanding the attraction of Grand Theft Auto. This is one of those cultural barriers, where what you want and what you feel you ought to do painfully conflicts.

Perhaps someday our culture will have changed. Children may learn to see that romantic getaways can involve participants having bags under the eyes at breakfast due to a heavy night of Need for Speed. And businessmen or visiting lecturers can open the morning meeting with the suggestion to postpone as they could not get around to revising their notes the night before due to a Call of Duty at the hotel. What a great society we would have become (erhm) if that came about, but we are not there yet.

What actually saves the day at the hotel is the fact that you have to go down to the lobby to get your Nintendo or Playstation. That could be just enough of a level of effort to protect the romantic harmony of travellers and perhaps even the quality of business meetings in town. But then, you can not help but wonder, why should you offer it at all if it only taunts the hotel guests? I think there is at least one possible answer here. Besides holidaying people and business travel, there is one other group of people stay in hotels and who would be thrilled to find the console: those unfortunate souls who just got booted out of their houses by their spouses. Well, they do exist. And for irony’s sake, let us hope that it was not for playing Tomb Raider

Or just push it down the stairs

Besides the missed chance of having the fellow pushing the armoire up the metro stairs, look at what the storage company is telling us :

“You love it. Your wife hates it. We stock it.”

Is that still arguing in their favour? Imagine if you are the unfortunate character in that sitcom. Before your marriage, she put up with your bench-press, your playstation and your antique armoire in the living-room. But since contracts have been signed and noble metal rings have been exchanged, her true feelings have surfaced. She does not like the armoire, and in fact, she had never liked it. So the armoire has to go. Being the peace-loving type of husband that you are, you call up your friends and work your way down five flights of stairs with granny’s armoire. But once you are down on the boulevard puffing away, what do you do? Is storage really the solution?

Every month as those 100 euros of storage rent leave your account, you will be reminded that she does not like your grandmother’s armoire. Every month, you have 100 euros less, which could have been time to yourself every day, with a coffee and Le Monde before work. But no. She does not like your armoire. Or it could have been a bouquet of flowers for her, every week. But no, she did not like the armoire. And that would go on indefinitely? This advice is a recipe for divorce, as, after all, you are already preparing for your new life after she’s gone. This is not a good idea. Do yourself, and your marriage, a favour and give the armoire to your sister in the south or sell it online. Or just push it down the stairs like the fellow in the Ad – you will be a happier person. And so will your wife. The timing for a counter Ad from le bon coin or ebay would be in order:

“You love it. Your wife hates it. We’ll sell it.”

At what point is it no longer a long shot?

When you casually buy a lottery ticket at the Française de Jeux, your chances of winning the lottery are 1 in 19 million. Naturally, everyone understands that this is a long shot. To many people (15 million of them in France) the hope of something is better than nothing. To others, (the rest of the population?) the chances of winning are so low that they do not manage to even derive any day-dreaming pleasure from buying a ticket, making it a pure waste of money. But both sides are easy to understand…

But what if the odds of success are even lower, say  your pet bird flies out the window because you forgot to close the cage door after cleaning it, as has happened to the unfortunate person hanging up desperate posters on drainpipes. Do you really think there is any chance at all that someone will recognize your little Mojo and manage to catch the bird to return it to you? The bird has flown away! It is completely irrational to spend your time printing and pasting posters around town (and why not further afield, it is a bird, remember?). But people do it.

Buying a lottery ticket, or distributing posters of your lost bird, both give you the illusion that you are doing something to remedy a situation, even if it is not a rational course of action. Newspaper articles about lottery winners and websites about found birds feed us false hope, a hope which is mildly reassuring. You may well know that it is pointless, but sometimes doing something feels better than sitting in a corner sulking. But of course, secretly, you know it is not.

Modern urban decline

Technological innovation has now led us to new ways of discovering that your neighbourhood is going down the drain. And this was in dire need. Successful regulation has led to buildings being kept, cleaners and impeccable garbage collecting led to tidy streets, and mass produced clothing has led to decently dressed people. So how are you supposed to know if your neighbourhood is still up there? You will never guess the latest indicator.

Sure you can turn to the town hall, the Mairie, and find an elabourate report on composition of the neighbourhood, the number of accidents, the crime rate and so on. But other than that it is going up or down for your area, you still need an opinion about how “bad” it was in the first place. It is not easy. I think I have stumbled upon a simpler method, a much simpler method: buy some cake.

Even if the pastry in the local bakery is not a give-away of the quality of the area, it may still prove very enlightening. Buy one of those little cakes and you might discover a whole new piece of depressing technology – the automatic change dispenser. Yes, really. The smiling lady who used to give you your change, has been replaced by a robot! Well, in at least one bakery in the 13th district. The coins you feed into it yourself, the bills the lady feed in on the other side. The staff has no access to the money. Why do we need a robot to intervene exactly at the moment of human contact? Or more from a business perspective, when the baker is supposed to be making idle chit-chat with the customer in the hope of keeping their custom? A moment of thought would suggest that it must be something which is more important than the continued return of the patron. Since mistakes would not be very costly at a bakery -perhaps a few cents here and there- it must be the threat of theft.

But theft? Is the staff suspected or is it the clientele which steals the pennies from the people that bake our bread? Besides the depressing thought, if that is not a sign that your neighbourhood is not what it was, then nothing is. This must also be the single easiest technological give-away not to move into an area. Future buyers take note: test the local baguette not only for the bread, but also to know who gives you the change!

Your Personal City

The Lhopitallier pharmacy resides high on the elegant rue Soufflot, just before the mausoleum of great people, the Pantheon. If you think that it must have been around a while, you would be right. The pharmacy was originally set up in 1750 by the pharmacist Joseph Bataille a few streets away (on rue de la Montagne St Genevieve) but his building had to make way for the extension of the rue des Ecoles during the sweeping changes brought about by Haussmann, who was redrawing the map of the city. Undeterred, the pharmacy moved to rue Soufflot, where they have now been for 154 years. And everything (barring the lighting) is still the from that move. It will have looked almost identical when your great grandfather walked in there hoping for a cure for his pollen allergy as it does for you today. And it still looks immaculate! It is places like this that make the city feel eternal. But do you ever go there?

The question has a baffling aspect to it. If the pharmacy was no longer capable of answering to the contemporary consumer (/patient) demands, it would just close. Logical enough, but let us imagine if it really depended on YOU, on YOUR choices. Or perhaps even if the whole city took up your behaviour. What would the city look like? Would there still be eye-sore restaurant chains? Would there be pizza places? Would small bookshops still be there, or just the FNAC-like megastores? Would the wine merchants still be there, or would wine be bought at Nicolas or the supermarket? And what about video rentals? Music shops? The bars and nightclubs? The art galleries? And if we extend the idea to common goods, would the parks still be there? Playgrounds? Public pools? Libraries? Museums? The metro? Busses? Free bikes? Or what about alleyways you never walk through?

If you start scraping all those places you never go, the city becomes completely adapted to your needs. The more you think about it, the more you realize that you would not want to live there. Not only would you no longer be choosing your own life if the city was already tailored to you, but the sight of it (combined with the lack of those elements you do not use) will actually repulse you. Now there’s a paradoxical thought to keep in mind the next time you find yourself in a place you do not like. But notice as well the parallel with the virtual world – take notes Google and Facebook – we do not want to live in a world shaped around ourselves. We need to be able to reject to be able to choose, we do not want it done for us. Too much of ourselves alienates us from ourselves, as we no longer see the pegs on which we hang our identity separated from other possible lives we could have had, or still could have. Life is not static, and we would not want it to be. And that is also precisely why we are impressed that Lhopitallier is still there. Even if, or especially if, we never go there.