Missing Links

The mixed messaging of LinkNYC

LinkNYC is an infrastructure program launched by the Mayor’s Office to replace the city’s unused payphone banks. Predicated on the promise of Internet access for all, they were promoted as kiosks with a cause—a complex network bringing connectivity to the masses and providing New York City with the world’s biggest and fastest public network. Each Link, the name seemingly plucked from a lexicon of tech-related buzzwords and given to an individual kiosk, is equipped with device charging inputs, free calling services, and a tablet for looking up city information.

My neighborhood was among the first in Manhattan to get linked up. The slipshod wooden pyramids marked the sites of future connectivity along Third Avenue, their chipped orange paint stenciled with the promise of “Free Super Fast Wi-Fi Coming Soon!” Before long they were replaced by 9-foot monoliths, aluminum slabs with dormant screens reflecting the inquisitive faces of passersby.  My own curiosity gave way to excitement when the Links went live. I was eager to see the response to this public service for the 21st century.

With the launch came the users, still around today in their various iterations. Casual users saunter over for a moment or two, checking a landmark on a map or looking up the nearest subway station before moving on. They have places to go, friends to meet, tourist attractions to see.

Some make calls. Without the cool metal safety of phone bank enclosures, they stand exposed and bound by nothing but a disembodied voice that broadcasts—from the kiosk speakers—their evening plans or reasons for breaking up.

Many take advantage of the USB inputs. They lean against the tower, brazenly facing the people streaming by as if to say, “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere! I can’t. I’m waiting for my phone to charge.” Phones and tablets hang swinging from their cables, pendulums marking the moments until batteries reach full charge. Worried that charging stations cost more than mere minutes? Fear not, patient chargers. Charging is free. Still not convinced? A glowing instructive on the digital screen reassures: “Charge your phone for free here. Connect to USB for free fast charging,” as though copywriters receive a bonus for each use of the word “free.” Finally, respite from the exorbitant fees of charging your phone at the coffee shop down the block. It’s like free CitiBike for the Internet, only not at all convenient.

Those seeking entertainment are the most resourceful. They find sofas and lounges in newspaper boxes and discarded suitcases. Tethered by the long, thin wires of their headphones, they listen and watch at eye-level with the ADA Compliant Tablets!, backs to the flood of the neighborhood shuffling by. Only two weeks after their launch in the Bronx, web browsing was shut off following complaints of users—primarily homeless users—monopolizing Links to watch porn. Though LinkNYC spokespeople call such extended use and access to inappropriate content an unintentional effect, it seems to me to be consistent with their goal of “filling the gap” for millions of New Yorkers without internet access “by making the fastest available Wi-Fi accessible for free on streets across the City.”

The discrepancy between intended and actual use stems from the city’s murky objectives. Is LinkNYC a service meant to replace the payphone call? Or is it to keep residents connected to Wi-Fi as they traverse the city streets? Is it a reference point, or an encyclopedia?  Is the goal of bridging the technology gap not accomplished by granting anyone the ability to spend endless time with the joys of streaming content? There’s something beautifully democratic in a playing field leveled for all to fall down a Google rabbit hole or get wrapped up in the warm embrace of a YouTube binge.

The most telling flaw is in the architecture, designed by a company named Antenna—a mode of technology, like the payphone, consigned to history. Antenna’s website describes the Links’ physical design as “symbolic,” and it is. Ample screen space is reserved for advertisers, with little left over for the public, in a marked contradiction of stated intent. The tablets, nestled in an alcove of aluminum, provide the illusion of privacy in the middle of the sidewalk. Under the guise of solitude, users see staples of home convenience: the telephone in our home office, the TV in our living room. Devices meant to connect us to relatives in the Midwest or gather us around to take in the latest network drama are popping up on the streets. And just as a book becomes infinitely more interesting when in the hands of the person next to you on an airplane or riding in your subway car, so too does the screen in use in these makeshift living rooms.

Surely complaints of excessive use don’t come from those clamoring to get screen time, but from the forced voyeurism into traditionally private behavior. I’m equally offended by someone watching pornography as I am by someone watching “The Big Bang Theory,” and I’d prefer not to see either on my morning commute. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I’d rather station myself in front of the television in my own home—and I do, often—with no one but myself familiar with which idiotic jokes make me cackle and the inane moments that manage to bring on full-heave crying spells. Still, I recognize my fortune in easy access to culture and media and wouldn’t dare deny something I find so vital to anyone who seeks it.

And so I fix my gaze forward, avoiding the distraction of those anchored to their spots. The words of a modern Lady Liberty echoing in my mind: “Give me your tired, your poor, your culture-starved masses yearning to consume, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Give these, the homeless, tempest-tossed a public living room, I lift my screen beside the golden door!”