Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Safe as Starbucks

There's a false sense of safety in this city. We see it when people leave their doors unlocked while they go off on three-hour jaunts, only to come home to find that thieves strolled in and stole their Rolex watches and Apple products. We see it when people leave their bikes unlocked, their strollers unattended, and their laptops free for the taking.

Now the New York Times reports: Starbucks is the epicenter of thievery, the heart of the Bad Old Days' return.

As a regular chronicler of this phenomenon, I'm enjoying the Times piece with ample Schadenfreude. It's filled with examples of people who believe they can leave their valuables on a table or chair, then ignore them completely--people who are shocked when they're then stolen. One "commanding officer said people who left laptops behind to use the restroom should not be surprised to return to an empty table."

It never fails to amaze me, but people really do that--and then they panic. This is what happens when your false belief in safety comes crashing into reality. So what's happening here? Why are New York City Starbucks a hotbed of five-fingered crime?

In the Times article, Starbucks is described as "A place so comfortable and familiar, with its jazz, leather chairs and Wi-Fi," that people don't think twice about leaving their purses and laptops unattended. Starbucks has provided a perfect environment for feeling safe--without actually being safe.

It all reminds me of a 2004 Malcolm Gladwell article. In "Big and Bad," Gladwell concludes that for SUV drivers the feeling of safety is more important than actually being safe. "That feeling of safety isn't the solution," he says, "it's the problem," because SUVs aren't safe--they rollover and kill other drivers.

He explains how people who feel helpless will seek a seemingly safe environment, like an SUV, where they can be passive and thus have their perception of risk distorted. Says cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille, "Safe means I can sleep. I can give up control. I can relax. I can take off my shoes. I can listen to music."

Research has shown that people who drive SUVs tend to be self-oriented, attracted to luxury, and fearful of crime. What about the avid Starbucks customer?

At Starbucks they like round tables, because round makes single people appear to be less alone, and they like the odd names for sizes, because the special language makes them feel like part of a special community, according to author Karen Blumenthal. From this we could assume that people who love being inside a Starbucks fear being alone and want very much to belong to a select group.

This false sense of community could certainly make people feel safe, lulling them into blunders based on a belief that everyone around them is like them, and looking out for them. No wonder the buzzards are circling. But we know this isn't just a Starbucks issue. It's happening all over town, this blind belief in false safety.

The city as a whole has been engineered to be like one big Starbucks or SUV
, a comfy womb-like environment, up high (in status) and filled with cupholders (amenities), created for helpless, frightened people who want to feel safe, so they can relax. The people who design Starbucks and SUVs make them this way so they can sell the products and make money. Why would a city be so engineered? Who benefits from a passive and pacified populace?