Along with half the world, it seems, I picked up Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs this winter break. I never expected him to talk about Turkey, where I happen to be stationed for the next seven months. Jobs remarked:
“I had a real revelation… All day I had looked at young people in Istanbul. They were all drinking what every other kid in the world drinks, and they were wearing clothes that look like they were bought at the Gap, and they were all using cell phones. They were like kids everywhere else. It hit me that, for young people, the whole world is the same now. When we’re making products, there is no such thing as a Turkish phone, or a music player that young people in Turkey would want that’s different from one young people elsewhere would want. We’re just one world now.” (p. 529)
I am standing at the main gates of Bogazici University in Istanbul. It’s late January, and bitterly cold: people do seem to freeze in the same way here as anywhere else. But look further. In front of me is a circle-shaped turnabout where five different roads meet. Steve Jobs would be shocked: in California, there is an almost engrained orderliness to how people negotiate intersections, with a right-of-way hierarchy dictated by traffic laws and courtesy. Not so here. A taxi stands deserted in the very middle of one of the roads, with its door swung open and its engine running, while traffic increasingly builds and bursts behind it. Drivers with iPhones and iPods glued to their ears jack their cars into every available nook of space, and some even climb the sidewalk to get past other cars. Eventually the driver of the deserted taxi ambles back up the hill and drives on; as the rest of the traffic unlocks, the rule of the road is who gets there first. Here, waiting for courtesy means not only that you would never get where you’re going, but also that you would inspire an avalanche of honking.
I try to cross the street, and make eye contact with the driver of a dolmus, a van-like mode of public transport that goes by the same name as the stuffed grape leaves so popular here (as my wife explains, the theme of “stuffed” is what’s common between them). Traffic is stopped, so I nod to the driver and cross. But right at that moment the car in front of us inches forward, and the driver of the dolmus throws his van ahead. I jump aside and glare as he, simply, looks ahead in boredom.
I remember a picture of a highway leading out of New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina hit: three straight lines on the highway, demarcated by the markings on the road. Not one car on the emergency lanes! My sister sent me a picture of a similar road in Italy, where the cars looked as well arranged as jellybeans trying to emerge from the neck of an upside-down bottle.
As I drive around in Istanbul (more on this in the next post), I think about these pictures, and Steve Jobs, and revel in the different skills needed to navigate different cultures — literally! — and think how boring it would be if we were just one world now.
Cross-posted from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s blog on the Psychology Today website.