After ten years of sniffing brie and holding opinions about squatter’s laws, I have finally returned home to America from living in Europe. I’d love to be snooty about this, to use my tenure as a sophisticated European ex-pat who has conquered Xanadu itself as an excuse to lord my superiority over the fellow citizens of my birthland: those strange idiot cowboys whose clothes are so perpetually encrusted with Manwich drippings, and who snicker would scarcely be able to identify which play a Moliere quote came from even if it was tramp-stamped on Grand Dame Snooki herself.
I can’t do it, though. The bottom line is that after a decade living in Europe, coming home has made me feel like a cave man suddenly being dropped in the middle of some sort of hyper-futuristic planned community overseen by a council of Cylons.
According to sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you want proof to this theory, I suggest you spend an extended period of time in any other country besides America, barring maybe Canada and Japan. Despite the protestations of PR departments of gadget makers around the country, though, America isn’t magic because of the iPad, or the Xbox 360, or any other hunk of silicon. You can get that shit in Uganda. It’s magic because of tech convenience, not tech excellence.
Let me point out something I did on my first night back in America that, as an ex-pat just a few weeks ago, would have seemed to me as riotously implausible as Thor had skating down from Valhalla riding a cyborg unicorn on the curve of an ejaculated rainbow: I ordered a pizza online.
I could already do this in Germany, where I spent the last four years, of course. You just go over to Pizza.de, enter your area code, randomly choose one of several dozen pizza shops in your area (I was partial to the Pizza Pimps in 10437) and then decide what sort of pizza you want. That the ingredients of a German pizza read like the shopping list of MacBeth’s triptych of witches is besides the point, although if you’ve ever wanted to have a fried egg, currywurst and artichoke pizza with a hollandaise sauce, then let me tell you, Germany’s your country. The web site wasn’t particularly sophisticated, but it got the job done.
Here’s the difference, though. Once you click “Order” on Pizza.de, the interaction is done. Your pizza gets fired off into the invisible digital ether, and whether you ever see the Platonic abstract of your pizza materialize on your doorstep is essentially dumb luck. No one will give you a delivery ETA. You can’t track your pizza order online. You might wait an hour and a half for that pizza and when you finally give up and call the shop you ordered from, you will simply be told with flat but dripping contempt that your order has been received, and will be processed according to its place in the queue. If your pizza was composed with garish ineptitude, or if it was delivered in its box upside down, there’s no way of telling where the fault lies.
I would like to compare this very typical experience with ordering a pizza from Domino’s in the United States. I don’t want to focus on what happens before I click the “Order” button, although I will say that Domino’s insistence upon labeling vegetable toppings as “unmeats” might just spark a diplomatic incident if the E.U. ever gets wind of it. It’s what happens after you click “Order” that’s the magic: you, the customer, are pumped directly into the central cortex of Domino’s massive pizza delivery A.M. You get to witness, in real time, every stage of the process; each cog in that vast pizza-making machine is humanized with a name.
You probably don’t even remember the name of the guy who made your last Domino’s Pizza, but I do! His name was Huong, and not only did he prepare it and bake it (exactly three minutes after my order), but after it was done, he “checked it for excellence” (10 minutes after my order). I know. I was rapt with attention, because once I ordered my pizza on Domino’s site, the experience wasn’t done. I was given real time updates on every stage of the process. That’s how I can tell you that my delivery dude was Mario, who picked my pizza up exactly 14 minutes after I clicked the “Order” button; when the doorbell didn’t ring after ten minutes, I feared the worse, so I looked out the window and saw Mario on the street below, shielding his eyes above his brows despite the night, looking for my house. It was only then I realized that the apartment we’d sublet didn’t have our names on the door. I rushed down and tipped him a fiver, then rated every human in my Domino’s Pizza process five stars. I was able to do this exactly 27 minutes after I clicked the order button.
I know, I know. This is all so pedestrian, so typical that you can’t even believe that I’m bothering to describe it. But trust me on this: only in America would you be given real-time status updates on your pizza order. For a German, pizza delivery is a binary proposition: either your pizza has arrived, or it hasn’t. In America, it’s frickin’ quantum… all in the name of convenience and capitalism.
Convenience. That was a dirty word in Germany. German efficiency is much vaunted, but really, what Germans are excellent at slavishly following an infinitely complex protocol of rules and regulations. This is excellent for keeping the trains on time, but it’s not the same as efficiency, because everything breaks down in the face of the smallest element of chaos. In a system of such casual Kafka-esque bureaucracy, no wonder Germans are so offended by the idea of not playing by the rules, even when those rules are absurd. For an American like me who has returned from abroad, then, the biggest culture shock is American convenience… convenience not only as something that can be reasonably expected, but an inalienable right that has only foregone addition to the Constitution because it’s too damn obvious for anyone to have ever written down.
Sure, America’s got its problems, but where else in the world can you order a bagel and cup of orange juice online and have it on your doorstep in fifteen minutes? Where else can you have an infinite number of movies (or video games! or television shows!) delivered to you via mail or broadband for a shockingly reasonable flat fee? Where else in the world would I know, as I bit into that slice of pepperoni, that it was good old Huong who was the artisan behind my pizza? No where. Sarah Palin may very well be rampaging across the mid-west in her out-of-control mecha, and yeah, Glee’s a pretty execrable show, but you know what? America rocks.
* * * * *
Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the weeks most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.