Sunday, June 02, 2013


Living and working in the city, I’m among the fortunate who find the Chicago EL a relatively convenient ride to and from work. The CTA brown line doesn’t reek of urine like the red line does. Nor is it covered in graffiti and littered with trash. It’s a relatively clean and comfortable place to spend 30 minutes every morning and evening, and a great place to study the behavior of people in public. Which is about all there is to do while daydreaming away those precious minutes in transit.

My ride to work is a little more comfortable than this one.
For me, the commuter train feels a lot like an elevator – one of those uncomfortable public places where strangers are forced to share close quarters for a short distance before parting ways. There’s very little eye contact, and virtually no conversation. Those who initiate either are likely creeps or criminals. That’s just the way it is and everybody knows it. So you mind your own business and try to respect the personal space of those around you.

Unlike strangers stranded on a tropical island together, who may otherwise have incentive to get to know one another, people on the train spend their rides in a state of quiet, personal reflection. Or, at least they did before smart phones came along.

Today's travelers in transit enjoy the deeply gratifying distraction of a held-held portal to the world outside their train car. Seated passengers who had once struggled to awkwardly unfold large-sheet newspapers now comfortably gaze into their palms at glowing, real-time newsrooms. And playrooms. And chat rooms.

The very notion of such unfettered access and control in the consumption of information is as taken for granted today as it would have been considered science fiction just a couple of decades ago. Behold the world of information now in your hands, swiftly manipulated by your fingertips. It’s truly a modern miracle.

And it also makes one wonder: where are all of these technological advances leading us?

I went to the theater the other night to take in a Broadway musical. It has become customary (and necessary) at such events for theater management to direct patrons to exercise courtesy in turning off, and tuning out, the outside world...if only for a short time, out of respect for the performers, the performing arts, and fellow show-goers who spent good money to enjoy a good show.


Most complied with this simple request to silence all cell phones. As soon as the intermission lights came up, however, bathing the audience in a bright yellow glow, a sea of flickering digital screens lit up the floor. From my seat in the dress circle I could see them all winking like the scales of a fish reflecting through the water. People essentially tuning out their immediate surroundings to attend to life elsewhere.

We give the technology such power, I thought. The act of so habitually giving our minds to the virtual world says, in essence, that what is happening outside of the room we are in is more important than what is happening inside of it. That life somewhere else is more interesting, more fulfilling, and more immediately rewarding than any sensory experience one could possibly have in the here and now.

And that promise is so frequently kept, we return to our devices day after day – time after time – on the train, in the theater, in the car, at our desks, in the bathroom, in bed, in line at the store, and at virtually every idle moment. Just look around you, wherever you go and wherever you are. People are staring at their hands, immersed in a virtual space and indifferent to their physical one. You may, in fact, be reading this post on a tablet or smartphone. Indeed, I am “penning” it on my handheld wireless device, connected to the Internet, as I ride to work.

We are always on. Always connected. And there's a new anxiety that we may be missing out on something if we're not constantly checking in on the world outside of our own. Our Facebook feeds. Our email accounts. Our hand-picked news sources. Instagram buddies and Pinterest boards. Reddit threads and YouTube clips. So much information, so little time. But we have to keep up or risk losing touch with the rest of humanity.

 And when you look up from your phone for a second to take notice of them, you realize they’re just as distracted as you were.

The only way to keep up with it all is to check in – constantly, and usually at the expense of experiencing the world that is immediately around us. Of enjoying the company of the people we'd once turned to in satisfying Maslow's well-documented human need to belong. The people we choose to make our lives with. Our REAL lives. Our friends. Our families.


Today, we need only tap an icon on a tiny screen to satisfy that innate desire to belong. With that tap we can be immediately transported to a virtual world that reflects the real world in so many ways – even as it dilutes it in so many others. We text instead of talk. We zone out instead of tune in. We explore the world through a sophisticated composite of plastics and glass instead of through our own eyes, ears, hands, and feet.

And it's not because we're inherently lazy that we give ourselves to these devices – that is the RESULT, not the cause, of our sedentary wandering. In many ways, our brains are actually more active and fit than ever; indeed, we're improving our ability to multi-task, consuming more and more varied forms of content than ever, and accessing and processing a wider variety of ideas.

No – the reason we give ourselves to these devices is because the technology has made it easy to form habits that perpetuate the behavior. The behavior-reward loop is so strong, we react without thinking about it. We hear a text alert or sense a vibration in our pocket and suddenly feel a powerful urge to know what we are missing. We’re trained to reward our curiosity with instant access to a global bank of answers via Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of custom applications the moment our mind begins to wonder. We reflexively inject the virtual world with our deepest (and shallowest) of thoughts, immediate and future whereabouts, and photographic evidence of our existence at every opportunity to validate ourselves before the altar of humanity.

I post, therefore I am!

This map of the Internet eerily resembles the synapse structure of a biological brain.

Despite the immense amount of information now at our disposal. Despite the opportunities to connect with people all over the world. Despite the robust capabilities now afforded us as individuals to do and achieve more independently than ever before. Despite the superhuman extensions of our thought processes and communicative powers…we are not machines. We are still very much living, sentient human beings, even as technology seeks to control and direct us as though we were machines, bending our behavior to its will: which appears to be, quite simply, the propagation of technology.

One reminder of our humanity is the fact that there is a limit to the amount of information we can absorb. A limit to how many pictures we can scan. How many messages we can digest. How many offers we can process. How many requests we can consider. How many opportunities we can evaluate. And, yes, despite what your Facebook and LinkedIn profile pages may lead you to believe, how many friends and acquaintances we can keep...and keep up with.

Sorry, all those smiling faces carefully cropped in tiny pixel-built boxes aren’t your friends. Some of them, sure. All of them? Not a chance.

As my EL stop approaches, the automated conductor announces it over the intercom. The system unfolds as it does day after day, people closing out their applications and shutting down their devices, stowing them in purses and pockets, and rising to disembark. Once everyone has safely left the train and begins their final walk to work or home at street level, the devices come out again. 

We pass people we might recognize. We ignore the threat of traffic. And we fail to take notice of the many miracles around us. Miracles our ancestors once worshipped, that generations past came to take for granted, and that we have seemingly now forsaken in our self-absorbed voyage into the World Wide Web’s black hole of global unconsciousness.