Reminder to everyone lost in their screens and headphones on public transportation: You are really here.
Big D, a friend who asked to remain anonymous (for reasons that will soon become clear), saunters onto the New York City subway’s A train. Her ears are firmly ensconced in Beats by Dr. Dre, reggae blasting at high volume; there’s a subtle dance in her step and unanswered DMs lighting up her iPhone. Soon she’s transported into her private world, where the other 5 million daily subway passengers dissolve. The music is loud and she is lost in her online life. Thus distracted, she lets one rip.
“Girl,” she says with a laugh, “I forgot where I was!”
But as the aromatic evidence permeates her immediate surroundings, she’s reminded, with stinging embarrassment, that she is here, not virtually, but actually.
Big D’s fart—one of the more benign costs of sacrificing real for virtual sociality—made me think about how behavior in public spaces has changed in recent years. Before the era of smartphones and earbuds, if you needed to ask someone on the train if you’d accidentally hopped onto the B rather than the D, you didn’t have to scan dozens of faces before finding a passenger without headphones—the quintessential tell for “don’t talk to me.” In the summer of 2002, when I first arrived in NYC, when you kindly said, “excuse me” to someone wearing a big-ass bag that kept bumping your back, they’d actually hear you and make the necessary adjustment. A casual conversation struck up with a stranger about the novel in your hand was far more likely. Even when people are unplugged these days, the smartphone has created an atmosphere of unapproachability on the subway that imbues the entire experience with a strained ability (and lack of desire) to connect in real life. It may seem trivial and silly, but this could have big social implications, according to experts.
Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, reminds me that since its inception in the late 1860s, the subway—and the train before it—forced strangers to huddle close together in tight quarters, which engendered a whole new set of social codes and unspoken rules by which to navigate the discomfort of sharing space with unknown individuals. “People have always been socially withdrawn on public transportation,” Carr says, referencing the still-common practice of reading newspapers, books and magazines to fill the time and avoid interaction. “People like to be insulated in that environment. You don’t even like to make eye contact with others on the subway. It’s a defense.”
The smartphone, however, has provided a powerful new distancing tool. “People, more and more, are retreating from the actual social space where others exist as real beings into this virtual one where people exist as messages and photographs,” he says, warning about the dangers of our disembodied connections. “When you retreat from the physical world, you retreat from appreciating people in their full dimensionality and humanity. Instead, you deal with people as bits of media floating around, pieces of text and photographs.”
Social critic Giles Slade, author of The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness, agrees. “We have much less practice in interacting with other human beings, and with lower levels of interpersonal skill comes much more confrontation,” he says.
It’s not just that our physical disconnectedness—our “absent presence,” as Albright calls it—fosters a harmful level of insularity that breeds misunderstanding and animosity. It’s also making us lonely. A survey of 20,000 Americans conducted by healthcare insurer Cigna earlier this year found that 56 percent of the participants “sometimes or always feel that the people around them ‘are not necessarily with them,’” as reported by NPR. Those born in the digital age are often lonelier than older Americans.
Albright surmises that our loneliness, as well as the increasing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people over the last 80 years, derives, in part, from fewer and fewer “embodied experiences,” she says. ”Even play has become simulated or virtualized. Instead of playing an instrument, you play ‘Guitar Hero.’”
Her advice? Defy the modern urban impulse to “write the body out of the equation.” Urbanites should make a point of tuning in to the physical world around them. On the bus or the subway, that could mean paying attention to someone who needs your seat, or engaging with the toddler who’s trying to play peek-a-boo. Instead of retreating into your podcast, absorb the beautiful sunset blazing through your window while your train moves over the bridge.
Contemplating all of this reminds me of a 19th-century commuter, Walt Whitman, and his sweet ode to present and future fellow passengers on the Staten Island Ferry. In his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” written in 1856, Whitman ponders and delights in the multitude of visions, sounds and smells around him—flying seagulls, bodies casting shadows, the sunlit river, sailors on docks, the sails and flags of distant schooners.
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light/over the tops of the houses!
The minute detail of Whitman’s observations is breathtaking, and starkly reveals how far removed we are today from that level of attunement with our surroundings, and our curiosity about each other.
It’s not too much to ask fellow travelers to at least remain aware that others can see, hear, and smell you when you’re encased in your personal cone of distraction. Perhaps Big D had the right idea: Nothing quite shocks us, however, rudely, from our collective techno-stupor and brings us back to our bodies, and ourselves, like a fart.