Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Guess Until Now, the Subway was like Going to Mars

This is another one of those posts wherein I alienate myself from my twenty-first century peers and take on the persona of someone who is five decades older than I am, and can’t maneuver around the rapid changes of the thrilling modern world.

I understand that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has just launched cell phone service inside of New York subway stations. What burns me is the thought that there was sufficient demand to carry forward the elaborate and expensive project of building an underground telecommunications network. I imagine that the MTA must have based their installation project on a well-established understanding of what their customers needed. That then would mean that there were hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who felt cheated that they had limited cell phone reception for as much as twenty minutes.

This is just one of those things, where there is an enormous contingent of people who share a particular sentiment and find it to be among the most natural things in the world, while I absolutely cannot wrap my head around it. I’m sure the positive responses to the announcement were perfectly matter-of-fact, since people have a tendency to take things for granted the day they first gain access to them. I’m sure the positive responses will also be fantastically melodramatic, since people also have a tendency to insist without a shade of intentional irony that they cannot live without things that they lived without for their entire lives up until that point.

My own response, on the other hand, was just to be utterly dumbfounded. I simply can’t comprehend why anyone would think it’s appropriate to spend God knows how many man-hours and material resources to construct something that benefits customers only in that it prevents them from having to wait thirty seconds and then walk halfway up a flight of stairs in order to receive the associated service. Is communications technology really that powerfully addictive that even in the midst of one’s amazingly convenient and rapid commute to work, it’s an act of painful sacrifice to not talk about bullshit or surf the web?

The project cost two hundred million damn dollars. I’m not the sort of person who usually complains about how New York City is a giant cash-sink for the rest of the state, into which all of our coffers drain. But if my city is falling apart to the extent that when I have to walk somewhere new I’m not sure whether there’s going to be rubble blocking my path, while New York City is able to spend two hundred million damn dollars on the lengthy process of designing and installing something that nobody anywhere could possibly fucking need, then I really have to rethink my perspective on the wealth disparity among localities.

I have to congratulate this news story both for giving me a perspective sympathetic to people I usually chastise for whining and for giving me a much needed and rarely accessible reason to be less desirous of returning to New York. Public transportation is one of the first things that come to mind when I am called upon to compare living in a decent city to living somewhere like where I am right now. First and foremost, the MTA actually gets you where you need to go, pretty much without fail. Secondly, though, it is, or always was, an exciting, engaging, sometimes poetic way to get around. With this new development, I am absolutely sure that when I finally make my way back there, the entire process of getting around will be transformed into something far more annoying than it had ever been before.

I used to commute for an hour each morning from Eastchester in the Bronx to Grand Central in Manhattan. The train was above ground for about half of that, and there were enough people yammering on their cell phones for that portion of the journey. It’s not that there conversations bothered me terribly, although they were almost always ridiculously mundane. But they were also the sort of dialogue you could get more out of if you had it with the stranger sitting next to you. I have had an awful lot of opportunities to observe cell phone addicts in their various unnatural settings, and I’ve found that in general, while people think that their devices connect them to the world wherever they are, the real effect is just that they take wherever the person is away from him. And nobody seems to notice or care.

What was most annoying about listening to people’s conversations while on my way to Manhattan was me, namely my unwillingness to forcibly hang up someone else’s phone, point out the window and shout, “It’s a beautiful fucking day; have a look!” Come the underground portion of the ride, it’s more a matter of compelling people to look at the human beings around them, but either way, it’s the same impulse that I have to deny, and if I had had to do it for a full hour every day, I probably would have eventually jumped on the tracks.

Doesn’t anybody think anymore? I mean, praise technology whatever ways you like, but no matter how intellectual one’s use of it, it is distraction from one’s own thinking. The potential for personal development that comes of ease of access to technology is kind of lost if there is never a time when we aren’t plugged in. Naturally, people can choose to turn off their phones, but what bothers me about this story is not that there will no longer be a place in New York City where that decision is made for them (sometimes – I often did get reception inside stations), but the implication that people never want to so much as entertain the concept of letting go and getting into their own heads. Is that such a scary place for everyone now, that having to either think for ourselves or interact with strangers is something we can’t even conceive of doing for as long as it takes to get from Greenwich Village to Central Park?

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