I am running late. The traffic on Rhode Island Avenue is appalling, as usual. I am currently idling in a queue to enter Logan Circle that runs about a quarter mile (bumper-to-bumper) to my girlfriend’s car on Florida Avenue. This will take the better part of 20 minutes until I can get through the circle only to wait in line for Thomas Circle. I become nostalgic for the days of being stuck on the I-5 crawling into the city. At least I had a mountain to look at.
By the time I arrive, Steve Inskeep has gone through today’s top headlines twice on Morning Edition and I have become filled with the desire to just sit in a quiet place and play a meditative game of Tetris. Nothing solves my problems quite like placing misshapen blocks falling from the sky.
I pull up to the curb and get out of the car, dodging cars to cross the street. I go through the revolving doors and hustle through the lobby of the postmodern nightmare that is a corporate office complex. I call the elevator and when it comes I command it to do solitary task and elevate me to my floor. Before the doors close two strangers board the elevator. We all make eye contact, each of us sharing an awkward smile. The doors close; we are all now trapped in this box until it reaches my floor (the 11th and penultimate one).
Instead of a few awkward, disquieting moments in the elevator, all six of our eyes become transfixed on the little TV screens in the elevator. The aptly called Captivate Network was actually created to sell adspace while it displayed news, weather, and traffic in elevators to alleviate a few awkward moments.
The day wears on. I spend most of it telling my girlfriend that I love her over google chat while I work on tweaking our network and answering phones. I managed to sneak in a game of Tetris, too. By the time the clock reaches 5:30, I turn the lights off and head back down to the streets of the District. I am going to take the metro home, so I walk the 2 blocks and take the escalator into the seedy underbelly of the city.
The train comes almost immediately and I board, riding the two stops to my yellow line transfer at China Town. A few more minutes pass until I can board the train that will take me home. I take my seat and look around at my fellow passengers. Everyone seems to have some sort of device they are plugged into. The kid next to me has awful techno at full blast on his iSomething. The woman in front of me is speed-reading her Kindle. I spend a few minutes trying to see if I can read the page before she can… I fail every time. A couple a few rows up are sharing ear buds and cuddling. I get to my stop, go home, drink a beer, and drift into a world of talking heads and top models.
Now, I told you a rather typical, if not roundabout story, of my day for a reason. We have surrounded ourselves with technology and innovations for better and worse. They make our life easier, more efficient, and put make the entire world a fingertip away. Conversely, our devices also balkanize us and make the moments we share more superficial. We have a world of relationships and experience waiting out there if we only said hello instead of putting the earphones in and blasting the techno.
Take, for instance, the rise of online dating. What was once viewed as sort of social pariah is now commonplace. I do not have real objections to people who do the online dating thing, but I do think that it falls into this trend of marginalizing human awkwardness and, ultimately, fundamental human connections.
It is the same with facebook, too. I am perfectly guilty of writing on a friend’s wall to skip a phone-call or e-mail in favor of quick superficiality. In the ‘iLife’ world, human connections become quantized by counts of friends, being tagged in pictures, and liking status updates.
I am also just as guilty for succumbing to the luxuries of modern technology and I am by no means campaigning for us to throw away our devices. Technology gives me the news in multiple mediums. I have the ability to tell my girlfriend I love her in the middle of the day, I can be transported quickly throughout the city and the nation. It even tells me how bad the traffic is going to be while I am riding in an elevator. Oh, and it gives me Tetris.
Technology makes our lives easier, but it also creates a few paradoxes. While our devices save us time and energy, we end up spending more of our time plugged into them. While we explore a whole world of global connectivity at our fingertips, we spend more of our time staring into our screens isolated from each other. We add friends on Facebook, but spend less time with our friends in real life.
However, I am not advocating that we “throw away the television”. I actually hate people who don’t have a T.V. I couldn’t imagine a day in my life without being plugged in to the world. As much as I hate to admit it, I wrote the first draft for this very article on my iPhone.
What I am advocating is that we take the time to appreciate an actual human moment. Sit next to a stranger and say hello. People have stories that can’t fit in 144 characters. It might be awkward, yes, but in the process maybe you get a new Facebook friend.