Monday, February 07, 2005

Bubble World

Courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a brief article on the isolation that personal technology brings to the modern consumer. MP3 players, Game Boys, personal DVD players and all the other bells-and-whistles electronics have been a revolution in personal enjoyment, but at what cost?

And people get so sucked in and preoccupied that they don't even put down their cell phones when being helped by store clerks; headphones stay clamped on a head that continues to bop to whatever song is too good to pause for the sake of, um, common courtesy.

An interesting side effect to being plugged into one's own private universe while operating in the outside world is feeling excessively at ease. This makes people shift into at-home behavior -- the shoes might come off, a nose might get picked, a voice might be raised. When one is in the throws of rapping along to "99 Problems" or perhaps trying to download Seahawks scores on one's Blackberry, the distinction between the private self and public self is blurred. We are transported to our homes, where we surround ourselves with the things that relax us (video games, the sports section, music, etc.).

I recall taking the train to Vancouver a couple of years ago, and even as recently as then, there was much more chit-chat between strangers than there is now. The train ride north this Christmas proved to be very quiet, but for a few small children who weren't plugged into any electronics. This eliminates the charm of being on a trip, the chance meetings we have with each other, the jokes we overhear, the serendipitous connections that make leaving one's home and going outside worth it. It wipes off all social fingerprints from ourselves, leaving us untouched and alone.

I had a similar experience some years ago at the Van Gough/Gaughin: The Studio of the South exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Most of the crowd splurged for the self-guided audio tour, which meant that as one of the few without a headset, I viewed the exhibit with a small but constant buzz of commentary in the background. I could tell when the tape asked the patrons to move to the next picture because dozens of heads moved to the next picture in choreographed unison and everyone shuffled over, like a pack of the worst foreign tourists you've ever seen. No chatter among the viewers, no agreement, and no discord, making me feel as though I had missed some of the "social fingerprints" that tend to accompany anticipated art events.

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