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The Uneasy Convergence of Technology and Society May 23, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I returned home from vacation to the news that a) a woman managed to talk on a cell phone for 16 hours straight; b) in a quiet car on an Amtrak train; c) it took that long for serious objections to be raised; and d) said woman felt “disrespected” (is that really a word?) by the police for escorting her off the train.

I wanted to write about this incident primarily because an op-ed in Wall Street Journal suggested (no doubt with some level of sarcasm) that mores of appropriate public behavior were changing in the era of ubiquitous communication, and that the rude behavior here was on the part of the complainers.  There is now an absolute right to connect with others; any attempt to prevent that has become the height of modern rudeness.  In short, you’re socially acceptable to communicate at any place and time; those who object to your doing so are themselves objectionable.

I recall an incident from several years ago when I boarded a flight from Orlando to Detroit.  I had been upgraded to first class, and assisted a sweet grandmotherly-type woman sitting next to me with her overhead bag.  This seemingly mild-mannered woman settled herself, pulled out her cell phone, and proceeded to, well, fire a corporate subordinate, and in no uncertain terms.  The subordinate apparently objected, and the heated conversation (of which I only heard one side), continued until after the boarding door was closed.  Upon touchdown in Detroit, it started up once again.

I was very uncomfortable at being exposed to such a conversation, and felt highly fortunate not to have to endure it for the entire three-hour flight, especially in the first class cabin.  Granted, it would have been worse in coach, where the seats are such that I probably would have heard the other end of the conversation too.

I wonder if it’s not so much that people arent’t more considerate of their neighbors as it is that they simply don’t think about them.  The woman in the seat next to me clearly felt closer to the subordinate she was firing than to me, the person physically adjacent to her.  The woman on the Amtrak train may have appreciated that being in the quiet car enabled her to more easily conduct her phone conversation because it was, well, quiet.  We focus more on those we are connecting to, and don’t focus on those immediately around us.

We tend to have less personal interaction with others as a result of more diverse ways of communicating over a distance.  Our seeming lack of consideration of those around us may be an unintended result of the choices we have about who and how we communicate.  In the past, we talked with those around us, or kept to ourselves, because those were our only choices.  Today, we have far more choices, and increasingly we choose not to make new acquaintances (“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”), but rather stay in our comfort zone with those we already know.

I’m by no means a voracious user of cell phones or social media, but I am reluctant to interact with people just because they’re next to me.  Perhaps we should take Stephen Stills’ advice more often.  We just may be surprised at how interesting the people around us really are.

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