Last week four women were walking on a busy commercial street in my neighborhood, not long after dinner time. Just when they reached a popular corner cafe, three young men jumped out of nowhere with a gun. They took the women’s bags and phones and fled into the night. Hard to say what was most troubling about this: that there were people all around when it happened, that this was on a well-lit block – or that several more attacks happened subsequently, with increasing brazenness.
My otherwise serene San Francisco neighborhood found itself seized by a crime wave. Someone was pistol-whipped. Someone else was shot in the hand. Most frightening, it was impossible to find any rhyme or reason to the muggings. They robbed groups of people as well as individuals. Busy streets seemed to present no impediment. This past weekend they graduated to robbing people in broad daylight.
What does this have to do with technology? Nothing and everything.
On an obvious level, technology is the enticement – it tends to be what get snatched. And of course technology also greases the skids in some cases; far too often, the victim is lost in Farmville and doesn’t see the assailants coming. At a root level, technology – specifically, the exploding technology sector and its attendant exacerbation of wealth disparity – isn’t exactly the solution. The flood of startup money into our city has made many rich, and sent rents through the roof. A lot of residents have been displaced, though not so far they can’t still see the wealth of those who’ve moved in.
As it happens, technology has also been a silver lining in all this crumminess. Rocked back on its heels, my neighborhood has come together – online – like never before. Our wonderful local blog quickly became a gathering place for neighbors in search of answers. The blog helped rally support for an impromptu meeting on the steps of our library, facilitated a dialogue with our local supervisor and generally made it easy to spread information.
And finally, yesterday morning, technology appears to have caught the bad guys. The night before, yet another robbery happened on our busy arterial; another victim was pistol-whipped. But this time the robbers’ haul included an iPhone. The cop who responded got on his iPad – his iPad! – and was able to track the stolen phone. A 90-mph freeway chase ensued, the suspects crashed their getaway car and they were hauled off to jail.
There’s probably a lesson in there about technology – but I suspect my neighborhood’s too wrung out to see it just yet. We probably just need to Instagram some stuff in a dark room for a while.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. Read his work at www.chriscolin.com.