Our own little private virtual worlds

[From St. Louis Today; a response is here]

Our own little private virtual worlds

By Patricia McLaughlin


Once the Age of Reason arrived in the 18th century, and you couldn’t do anything without a plausible scientific explanation, turning people to stone, gold, salt or whatever went out of style.

So what a surprise to see it rebound in the 21st century and quickly reach epidemic levels. You know what I mean if you’ve ever been trapped in the cereal aisle behind a woman frozen in place, head tilted at an odd angle, eyes focused on some invisible faraway place, lips murmuring indistinctly, one hand still blindly half-reaching out toward the Cocoa Puffs. At least it’s not permanent. Give her five or 10 minutes, and she’ll come to, grab her box of cereal, move on down the aisle, and not even notice the traffic jam she started.

They’re everywhere now, people oblivious to the world around them because they’re texting, scanning their e-mail on their iPhones, humming along with the music on their iPods. People frozen in mid-stride in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking the door to the post office, holding up the line at the bureau of motor vehicles. They’re not being rude. They’re just not there, so they don’t know you’re there either.

It slows you down, always having to thread your way around people who, so far as they seem to know, aren’t there, but are nonetheless taking up space.

It’s dangerous. The other day, a young woman in a parked car, head tilted, eyes unfocused, mind elsewhere, suddenly pulled out into traffic without signaling. She braked in the nick of time, gave her head a shake as if to clear it, and glared at me as if I had some nerve being there in the lane she’d meant to occupy, where I’d been all along, waiting for the light to change.

It feels alienating and weird. One morning, about to collect the newspapers from the front step, I heard the sounds of conversation beyond the front door and opened it, ready with a smile and a “Good morning,” to find — instead of a couple of neighbors bemoaning the scarcity of parking spaces — two strangers, each talking animatedly into a cell phone, each being walked by a dog. They seemed not to notice me or each other, or even the dogs they were walking. I wasn’t 3 feet from them, but it was as if I wasn’t there.

Out shopping a couple of weeks before, I found myself in the coat department with five or six other women, each of whom seemed to be carrying on a conversation with herself or someone else, I couldn’t tell which.

On the train a few months ago, I sat across the aisle from a young woman triumphantly telling one friend after another where she’d been all weekend, as opposed to where her mother thought she’d been, as if the whole carful of people sharing her auditory space didn’t exist.

Then there was the man shouting obscenities into his cell phone several tables away in a nice restaurant where a friend and I were celebrating our birthdays over lunch. So much for the sophisticated ambience.

And don’t get me started on the banality of so much of it. Once, in the time it took to walk from the front of a New York City bus to the back door, I swear I heard at least five different people say into their cell phones, “uh, I’m here on the bus. …”

Now, with Twitter, they can tell dozens or hundreds of people instead of just one that they’re on the bus.

There was a squib in the paper the other day about a kid who’d been sent to the principal’s office for texting in class. The principal was well into his reprimand when he noticed the kid’s eyes were fixed on his hands: He was too busy texting to listen to the scolding.

I don’t even have a cell phone myself. For one thing, I’m usually home. For another, being at everybody’s beck and call every minute of the day, no matter where I am, is my idea of hell. Probably I sound like a typical Luddite.

But here’s what I think. It took millennia for us to evolve to the point of being able to cooperate with each other and stay out of each other’s way enough for it to be practical for us to live together in villages and cities and towns without driving each other nuts. It took more millennia to construct and refine the manners and mores that allowed us to share public space with each other in a semicivilized way. Not to mention countless mothers shushing us and reminding us to tuck in our shirttails, wipe our noses, not sprawl on the bus, keep our voices down, say “Excuse me,” etc.

What happens to all that, now that all this technology is training us to be some place other than where we actually are? What happens to civility when we’re too busy chatting or texting or scanning our e-mail on our iPhones to be present to the actual people in whose presence we actually find ourselves? What happens to public space when nobody in it recognizes the existence of anybody else?

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