Issue 542

Member Profile: Cyrus Farivar

An Oakland-based journalist, author and radio producer muses on Amsterdam, cargo ships and the good (and bad) ways tech is impacting cities.

Urbanist Article

In his book The Internet of Elsewhere, journalist, radio producer and author Cyrus Farivar explores the history and effects of the Internet in Senegal, South Korea, Estonia and Iran. A senior business editor at the technology website, Ars Technica, he has written on such topics as Google street view, robocalls and Julian Assange. We caught up with Farivar, an Oakland resident and one of SPUR’s newest members earlier this year: “I first heard about SPUR five years ago when I attended a discussion about taco trucks in San Francisco,” he explained. “As there likely will be more events closer to me [with the launch of SPUR Oakland] that I can attend, I joined!”

What are some of the most interesting ways technology is helping cities right now?

I think that we’re just now at the beginning of live, on-demand services for urban infrastructure. For now, all we can really do is ask an app: When does my train/bus arrive? How do I get to this place? Is there an Uber near me? But what I’d also like to see is: What is my energy usage right now? What is my water usage? How do I compare to my neighbors? What are live, local, in-person events happening (farmer’s markets, festivals) happening near me? What interests me in my work is how technology affects our lives in meaningful ways.

Whether or not technology is making cities better, I think it’s a mixed bag. Uber is a useful service, for example, but we wouldn’t need it if there were plenty of cabs to go around that regularly took credit cards.

Your book The Internet of Elsewhere is the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world. Can you share some of your observations?

While reporting for that book (shown at left), the first (and so far only) time I went to South Korea (in April 2007), one of the first things I noticed was a man watching a live baseball game, on his phone, while on the Seoul Metro, hundreds of feet underground. That was amazing to see! At that time, you couldn’t even send a text message on the Transbay Tube while riding BART. That really drove home the point for me that even though we like to think of ourselves as being the pinnacle of innovation and technology here in the Bay Area, we are lacking in some of the most basic infrastructure.

I really think that part of why the United States is so often behind in urban infrastructure (high-speed rail, for example) is because often times our politicians have little to no experience with living in cities abroad—and so are often ignorant of the possibilities. I strongly believe, for example, that if all of California’s highspeed rail critics spent some time living in and around Japanese, Korean, German or French high-speed rail, they would see what it could mean for California.

What’s your favorite city?

It’s hard to know how to answer that question. Oakland is pretty great in a lot of ways. It has gorgeous geography, a diversity of food and culture, and is manageable. Amsterdam is wonderful for its bike-friendliness and canals and tree-lined streets. Mexico City and Istanbul are pretty magical in every way as far as endless metropolises go.

Favorite book about cities?

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta has always made me want to visit Bombay.

Favorite urban view?

Taking the ferry back to Oakland from San Francisco, and watching the cargo ships getting loaded and unloaded. I really want someone to make a kids’ toy, preferably out of wood, of the Port of Oakland