As an avid commuter, whether it's taking a bus, train, airplane, or even walking, I've noticed the proliferation of Personal Entertainment Devices (PED’s), i.e. iPods, and observed the impact on society.
Let’s start with listening. This happens everywhere, on a bus, while walking, reading, talking on the phone, exercising, or even going to the restroom. Aside from sanitary concerns, if listening were just that, it wouldn’t be a problem, but listeners do so much more. There is the matter of volume, where a good percentage of listeners have it loud enough to be bad for hearing, and also impose noise pollution on the people around them. This is exacerbated when listeners sing along to their music. Either most people have below average hearing, or they subconsciously want other people to know what they’re listening to.
The size of a listener’s headphones can be a strong personality signal. There are the sleek earbuds that are barely noticeable, to the giant ear-encompassing headphones that yell, “I’m listening to something important.” The effect of noise cancellation results in people who are not completely in tune with the environment. They don’t hear announcements, don’t follow directions, and create an effective barrier to conversation. The most polite listeners will take off their equipment to respond in kind, while the semi-polite listeners will take out one ear piece to determine if it’s worth their while to continue the conversation. However most listeners will not remove their headware (if you’re lucky they will lower the volume) and either passively nod, or loudly misinterpret and talk above their attached audio.
Stranger than Audio:
However, audio is not alone, as staring elicits the same degree of separation from public interaction. Staring can be more distracting, as it occupies your range of vision. It’s much harder to cross a street while checking email than listening to a song. Where audiophiles have the courtesy of taking off there equipment when obligated, it need not to apply to starers, as if avoiding eye contact grants them a pass on etiquette.
In fact, starers are usually more intrusive than listeners when it comes to common courtesy. Getting directions at a bus stop is one thing, but checking email or sports scores at a wedding or during a business meeting is rude and not uncommon. I had the unfortunate experience of going on a date with someone who was texting under the table. Just as there are loud listeners, there are plenty of loud starers; giggling over text messages received, or laughing at a video clip. Most irritating, is the nonchalance in which a starer can interrupt a conversation by checking their phone.
Tip of the Iceberg:
Even entertainment can be boring. People browse the Internet while watching TV for crying out loud. A form of entertainment being superseded by another form of entertainment during the entertaining!
These devices have invaded professional activities. The worst of this kind is in poker, where listening to music is allowed. What can be said of a “sport” that is not able to keep its players’ undivided attention during match play?
Now, I’m not perfect, and I’ve committed a multitude of these faux pas. I admit to have written parts of this post in a coffee shop, isolating myself with a laptop and headphones. Isn’t it ironic that in order to write a blog post, a solitary activity, I decide to go into a social environment, not for social interactions to develop the ideas, but to perform the solitary activity? Something is remarkably strange about this action.
The Death of Social Interaction:
There’s no question that having real conversations with people in the flesh is more fulfilling than any of these passive forms of entertainment. So why do we find it necessary to constantly “entertain” ourselves through digital and highly isolating means? It’s almost as if it is just for the sake of doing it; to escape any possible moment of silence or pause. Maybe it’s the fear of falling behind or looking important.
We are quickly becoming a society that is always plugged in without physically being forced to.
Steven Johnson makes a strong argument that coffeehouses were the crucial catalyst of idea creation for the enlightenment. But it now seems like we are eroding the advantages of these establishments. Some coffee shops are trying to preserve the ideal of a coffee house by eliminating wifi, but it is rare to see people discuss ideas openly in public anywhere nowadays.
The damage has already been done. The death toll from driving accidents related to this behavior has spurred talking and texting while driving laws. Government has been affected, as senators are tweeting during speeches in the senate. The military can’t even prevent soldiers from listening to music during battles.
I can already imagine crimes happening not under people’s noses, but literally in front of them.
Maybe it’s just America. The biggest contrast between the U.S. and other cultures, is that in America these tools are used for our own self indulgences, whereas countries like Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, etc. use them for freedom and improving the society around them.