I cringe as the elevator doors ding open, revealing another human inside. A stranger in a temporary space, boxed and suspended. We’ll have to travel together for several floors before determining who should exit first and part ways. Connected briefly and vertically in a steel container on a cable we descend. It’s quite an odd experience when you think about it.
We’re often forced into small spaces with strangers. Moments of waiting awkwardly in tandem, speechless and stationary. This makes me anxious.
I tend to avoid conversations with strangers in the same way someone might avoid one who has the bubonic plague. I open the private door to my apartment and scurry down communal hallways in fear of neighbourly contact. My heart drops at the sound of a neighbours door squealing open when I’m on communal territory. The possibility of hallway conversation motivates me to glide with stealth. Like a cockroach in the dark, I move silent and subtle.
Yet, there’s one thing that helps me deal with my social aversion… my phone. Entering the small stranger-filled elevator, I slide my hand into my pocket and withdraw my smartphone, just ‘checking’ it and therefore avoiding the possibility of awkward, raw, messy stranger interaction.
It’s not just elevators. Bus stops, waiting rooms, cafe queues… Cool, steel train carriages clatter and hiss along platforms carrying bodies into the city. Bodies of people with plugged ears, fast scrolling thumbs and glazed eyes. Everyone tethered to small screens and plugged into their own personal soundtrack. Reality subdued by smarter devices. The real world quashed by technology.
All these are scenarios where my phone acts like a force-field, repelling eye contact like a blinding light and discouraging small-talk like a chainsaw.
But… there was a time in the not-so-distant past where people (even me) used to just wait. That’s right, it was a rudimental era before these weapons of mass distraction were invented. A time where there was no escape and the air hung dense and suspended between strangers. An awkward air you just had to sit and breathe and be with. No Facebook newsfeeds, no instant messaging, no news (fake or other) in our pocket. Just raw consciousness.
I don’t remember these days much. Perhaps I’ve suppressed these horrid memories of such simplistic times. Days when strangers interacted. Now, it’s almost strange to imagine how we used to wait. I mean… just wait and nothing else.
I got into an elevator the other day with a dead phone. Zero percent battery… wouldn’t even turn on. Yet, I still got it out of my pocket, stared at the black screen, and pretended to scroll just because I felt it too awkward, too real, too honest to just stand there in the presence of someone else.
This on-demand escapism in my pocket has lowered my threshold for real un-edited interactions. The simple art of waiting is long gone as we can now feed our desire for stimulation whenever we chose. Simply waiting is not exciting and I guess it makes sense that we’d want to do something else if we had the choice and… now we do.
However, I think that it’s not just about boredom but, it’s also about social etiquette and the fact that we’d all rather be in control of our interactions. Without smartphones and distractions, we’re too vulnerable and, quite frankly, small-talk with strangers is just far too much effort.
So, where does this leave empathy?
We read a heartfelt news story on our phone about a boy who overcame cancer and we empathise yet we resent the homeless person next to us for taking up a whole seat. We watch ‘motivation porn’ videos of people overcoming struggle and feel inspired yet, we ignore neighbours who we know are having a hard time. In reality, empathy without responsibility is easy. Anyone can empathise with someone in a YouTube video over the other side of the world. But, empathy with real humans is a different kettle of fish. Empathy, where we can interact with someone and make a difference, is just all too hard. It’s just too much responsibility most of the time.
In reality, we’ve gone from wanting to experience life to; wanting to curate our life. We still want to feel the spectrum of emotions, empathy and connection with the world yet, we want it in a medium we can control and tweak. We want to experience it without any responsibility to take action and interact un-edited with other humans. We still crave life’s emotional ups and downs but, we’d rather experience it through a Netflix binge-watch rather than get to know someone’s real story. Someone we can help.
Apps now learn our behaviour and interests and feed us back a stream of personalised and ‘relevant’ content that’s tailored just for us. We sit back and enjoy a stream of digital bliss that strokes our desires with its ones and zeros and pixels and data. However, all this really does in further lower our tolerance for difficult and raw interactions. Life experiences that are required as part of our learning. No wonder depression and anxiety and now rife within our culture. We’re simply shedding our defence and coping mechanisms by avoiding others and curating our reality to meet our desires and avoid raw pain, discomfort and responsibility.
I’m guilty of it. You probably are too.
Some of the original catalysts behind the dot-com boom, the creators of chat rooms and virtual worlds, had an ideology. They envisioned a world where we would take what we learnt about ourselves and our identity in the virtual world and apply it to how we live our lives in the real world. Perhaps it seemed like it would all turn out much simpler back then. The reality now is that virtual and real are blended in an indistinct landscape where the borders between the two morph in a shapeless world of ‘connectivity’. We tend to switch between real and virtual interchangeably and it’s not always easy to define which world we’re operating in.
What does the future hold? Well, we’re in unchartered territory here folks. It’s no longer virtual reality but curated reality that’s taken over and we’re all pretty happy with that. So sit back, and adjust your life to just the right level of controlled emotional experience and feel good knowing that, at least, you still feel empathy. It may not be for your co-workers or neighbour but, you experience it through smart devices that distract us from messy, awkward, responsible, real human interactions.