Left to Our Own Devices

(Not) Working at Starbucks

Somewhere between after-school and before-dinner, too late for lunch, I sit with coffee and an ill-advised bagel stuffed with spinach and feta at the Starbucks Cafe in the nearby Barnes & Noble. 

Quick fact:  Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse company (and WiFi living room) in the world with 17,009 stores in 55 countries, including over 11,000 in the US.

Left to my own devices, I scribble longhand in a notebook, then take out my laptop,  taking note of  the prominence of personal mobile devices and how they have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives.   

Beyond the chatter of baristas and the steaming of coffee orders brewing, I observe few people actually engaged in live conversation in the store. Each to his or her own, they chat and connect on keypads and tiny screens, their devices brilliantly devised for calling, texting, searching, reading, retailing, computing and navigating the planet as we know it now in the 21st Century.

Quick fact: 278.3 million data-capable devices, including 95.8 million smart phones or wireless-enabled PDAs and 15.2 million wireless-enabled laptops, notebooks, tablets or wireless broadband modems, are in the hands of consumers as of June 2011 (Source: 50 Wireless Quick Facts.)

Left to their own devices, at a nearby table, there’s a dad working through fractions with his son (clearly a homework assignment). The chocolate cake, a sweet incentive to stick with the task at hand, sits half-eaten amidst the litter of plastic cups, paper napkins and worksheets on the tabletop. The phone - ah that ever-present cell-- gets passed from dad to son, a break from work, or the reward. Given the permission and time for a video game fix, the son begins to play.

Quick fact: The revenue from mobile entertainment content and services (games, music, social media, etc) is projected to increase from $33.2 billion in 2010 to $38.4 billion in 2011. Source: 50 Wireless Quick Facts I

Left to their own devices, paging through the book store at leisure, customers pass the time. Students hover together over laptops, sipping cold drinks. News-readers, long-retired from the daily grind, scan magazine headlines.Young moms with infants in strollers browse through best sellers. Elderly women sift through picture books intending purchases for beloved grandchildren.

The sun shines in a grey sky on this November afternoon, still warm enough to trick the mind that summer’s just ending and winter is still a long way in the offing. It’s the kind of afternoon I would surely miss, sitting indoors all day, at my desk at work. If only I were at work.
That’s not the case today. Today I am out of work. I have been dejobbed, so to speak - laid-off from the Detroit Science Center along with the entire staff. On a beautiful afternoon not unlike this one, nearly seven weeks ago, the museum closed its doors. Reported as a desperate, but “temporary” measure, due to “financial hardship,” our museum in distress is but one more sad story in Detroit’s long legacy of economic failings.

Quick fact: Both the number of unemployed workers in the US. (13.9 million) and the unemployment rate (9.0 percent) changed little over the month of October. Nationwide, the unemployment rate has remained in a narrow range from 9.0 to 9.2 percent since April. Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Left to my own devises this morning, I did not jump out of bed at 6 as is my general habit. I did not get dressed. I put on no make-up. I skipped breakfast, in no particular hurry to recharge and fuel up for the day. Instead I rolled over and reached for my iPad.

Blink. It awakes. At the command of a fingertip. Curious how habit forming that device can be.

Quick fact: Apple booked nearly $28.6 billion in sales. in the third quarter of 2011 - almost double its third quarter earnings from 2010. The company’s cash reserves out-distance the net worth of many small countries and even the U.S. Treasury during the debt crisis. (Source: Fast Company: Why Apple will Win.)

Curious that I have no curiosity beyond checking email at the crack of day, if only to assess the status of incoming messages. What news from the frontline of my search for work? None this morning. No work today on the horizon. In my new status as self-employed, I am presently jobless.

And so left to my own devices, I settle in, back under the covers, to noodle online, to post a comment on a blog or two, to google jobs for writers . . .
Searching Google power? Quick fact: of the 19.5 billion total internet searches in the U.S. in August 2011, Google powered 12.5 billion. Google's dominance is the voracious platform that lets it target mobile, social, local and every imaginable media frontier. (Source: Fast Company:Why Google Will Win)

The search for work is hard and often lonely work - a loss of title and identity, and an exclusion from the creature comforts of routine, water-cooler talk and community. Perhaps today will be the day I join the world on Facebook...

Quick fact: More than 800 million people around the world are friends on Facebook, and more than half of them log in every day, with more than 2 billion posts liked, linked and commented upon. That’s a lot of chatter-with-friend-power. Every day. (Source: Fast Company: Why Facebook Will Win.)

Left to my own devices - I take the open road to work today. I find myself writing for pleasure. Now in coffee shops. In dimming afternoon light. With fading hope for those working on the plan to S.O.M (Save Our Museum), I’m slowly drifting to the realization that it may take something akin to the realignment of the planet to rectify the situation for Detroit and its Science Center. My time now is my own, and it’s time to move on.

Sharing. Can be a good thing. Left to my own devices at Barnes & Noble this afternoon, searching for a spot to plug in a laptop, I discover there are only two electrical outlets in the entire store. One is inaccessibly occupied by a student in fixed concentration at a table at the café. The other, tucked quietly at the end of the magazine section is also occupied by a gentleman.

(Quick facts: Balding. Glasses. Still good looking. Seeks quiet contemplation,workspace, tea and cookies in book store.)

Seems like a nice guy. Seated at the one small table in the far corner of the store, set up with laptop, headphones and speakers, he generously invites me to share his space, with the one request that I don’t mess with his music. Sounds good to me. I sit. Unzip my computer from its case, plug in and settle. Tuning out his music, as best as possible—Italian tenors.

Against the hum and drum of Barnes & Noble, (see Why Amazon Will Win) I write away. As best as possible, left to our own devices, in concert: two computers facing off, tenors singing. . .eyes on screens, fingers on keyboards, tap-tap-tapping to the finish of the afternoon’s work.

About the phrase: Left to our own devices...

Nowadays, "device" most commonly means a computer, a machine or an electronic instrument designed to carry out a particular task. “Device” is the nominal form of the verb "to devise,"which means to plan or design.

Before the age of technology, "to devise" had a less specific meaning, namely nothing more than to dream up or imagine. It's this slightly archaic context, the expression "left to one's own devices" suggests freedom to do as you like, whatever you please.

Photos: VHenoch (in Chicago)
MHenoch (in Boston)

With thanks for your time to drop by. 


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