Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Space, mobility, and bad coffee

I’m at a Burger King, having taken my wife’s minivan into the dealer for its 7500-mile service. If there is a Hell for the hip, I’m in it. Spouse’s minivan. Burger King on El Camino. Terrible coffee in a Styrofoam cup with the words “Caution Hot” printed in about 12 languages. (Are there many Brazilians who don’t know that coffee is served hot?) The kind of wallpaper and cushion fabric you see in an orthodontists’ office. Lite rock hits from the 80s on the speakers.

Fortunately I’m not hip, otherwise I’d be in real trouble. Actually, if I didn’t have my laptop, iPod and a lot to read, I’d be in real trouble. As it is, I’m self-sufficient and self-contained, if slightly undercaffeinated.

When I was in middle school or high school (it all runs together in my mind now), my mother would take me and my brother to one of the nicer malls in Richmond’s West End (this was when the enclosed shopping mall was still a novelty, and kind of a luxury); give us a couple dollars, and then turn us loose. While we treated Regency Square as one large Zone of Distraction (I could kill half an hour looking at black-light posters and lava lamps, twice that in even a bad bookstore, and manage to spend maybe a couple dollars at the mostthe stores must have hated me), she’d find a cup of coffee, sit on a bench (this was before the invention of the food court), and read. She could do this for a couple hours. Inevitably she was the only person doing it (malls not having been discovered by adults for power walking, prayer meetings, book groups get-togethers, and all the things that they now support).

I always found itnot strange, but certainly unusual, and a sign of a certain independence. Now I do it, and I tell companies how important it is to watch how users reinvent and re-use products and spaces. Making customers do your beta testing is really bad; but treating them as product developers recognizes their creativity.

Maybe I’m just doing dressed-up autobiography. At the very least, it’s yet more proof that you should always listen to your mother.

I also recently realized that my recent work at the Institute echoes some of my eclipse expedition research. We’ve been doing a project on how mobile phones, wireless, and the bare outlines of pervasive computing are changing the ways people use space: the basic takeaway is that these technologies become resources that people use to reconfigure their use of public spaces (e.g., cafes, parks, libraries, food courts), and to do thingswork, talking to distant friends, and the likethat previously had been more tightly confined to specific places. It’s a bit like my eclipse-watchers, who turned the infrastructure of empiretransportation networks, time and meteorological services, local knowledge of camping sites, and skilled technical helpinto resources for temporary astronomical observatories. You’d only spend a couple weeks in the field, and it would be way different from Greenwich or Edinburgh; but in other important ways, it would be just like being back homeor close enough to guarantee that you could do serious science there. Different geographical and temporal scale, but the same underlying phenomenon.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”

Boy, this really is pathetic coffee. Why didn’t I think to bring my own? Because I assumed that since I’m still on the continental United States, there’d be a Starbucks within a block.


  1. There is no Starbucks within three miles of my in-laws’ house. In fact…there’s no Starbucks within three miles of MY house. You’re privileged.

  2. At least you have my never-ending thanks for taking the minivan… Can that make up for bad coffee?

  3. Hey, I have an interest in the smooth running of the minivan, too. Though the fact that Heinichen’s Garage has a Peet’s two blocks away makes it more attractive in my view. Still, we do what we must….

    And Victoria, I don’t know if I’d consider myself privileged to live in (what I thought was) Starbucks Ground Zero. It’s just that I’m starting to see them less as a company, and more like a utility.

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