I remember the day I first owned a piece of technology so advanced we couldn’t quite believe its possibilities — the SONY Walkman. It was about the size and weight of a small paperback book, played cassettes and allowed us, for the first time, to listen to music anytime anywhere. Magic! It was introduced to the world on June 22, 1979 and I bought mine in the summer of 1982. I sat at the corner of Madison Avenue and 49th. in the bright sunshine, instantly sequestered inside my own head in the midst of one of the city’s busiest corners in one of the world’s most frenzied metropolises.
Equally revolutionary, this new machine allowed us to shut people out. I’m now beginning to wonder if this is really such a great idea.
Last week, we attended a fantastic concert by Joan Osborne, her ecstatic fans shrieking out requests. The guy behind me kept hollering out the title of one of my favorite songs and, finally, she played it. I turned around to this stranger, exultant, both spontaneously combusting with joy. That, to me, is the point of a concert, shared pleasure.
Yet dozens of others sat there, the whole time, staring into their Blackberries or Iphones, their faces lit up with that selfish, annoyingly bright glow, oblivious to the fact there was a real human being performing on the stage in the same room and hundreds of us had paid to witness it, not to have other people’s little private mechanical lights glaring into our faces.
What is going on here?
I attended another concert last night in Manhattan by the Del Sol Quartet, from San Francisco, who played some difficult music written by Polish, Mexican and Cuban composers. Some people left early, unamused or bored. Others closed their eyes, the better to focus on the sound. At a restaurant afterward, three people sat alone at three tables near us, each of them intently focused on their Iphones, one of them a woman who’d sat right beside us at the concert. Forgive my naive fantasy, but imagine if we’d actually — conversed. I would have loved to hear her thoughts on the music we had just heard, but how do you “interrupt” someone so intently focused on their small piece of machinery in a relationship that now seems so intimate?
Yet it’s still normal in many countries outside of North America to share tables, and much less physical public space, whether or not that’s your preference. It’s one way to remind us we are sharing space and time.
A European project is trying to teach robots emotion by interacting with human beings, which these days seems a little quixotic to me, as we retreat further and further into our portable escape mechanisms. Author Maggie Jackson makes a passionate and persuasive argument in her book “Distracted” that constant attachment to, and participation with, electronic devices impairs our ability to think deeply and to make crucial connections between ideas.
I clearly value technology, since I’m using it to write and send this. I rely on it for my livelihood and appreciate its beauty and utility.
But when 24/7 attachment to it, physically and emotionally, fragments us into smaller and smaller pieces of private, enclosed, hermetically sealed individuality, what’s the point?
Are we all just here to ignore one another?