Back in the late 1980s, when I first entered the workforce, I took the GO-Train into Toronto’s Union Station each day, and then walked through the underground PATH system to get to my office building. Although it was crowded during the morning and afternoon rush hours, with thousands of business people scurrying in a multitude of different directions, navigating those crowds was a breeze. Today, the volume of pedestrian traffic is similar, but the crowd navigation has become increasingly frustrating.
So what exactly has changed during the past two decades? The short answer is: the ubiquitousness of mobile devices. Their arrival has had a detrimental effect on the way that we interact with each other, and these changes have descended upon us in three major, discombobulating waves.
I first started noticing disruptions in the pedestrian traffic flow during the late 1990s, when cell phones started becoming popular. Unfortunately, this was a causation rather than a correlation. Speaking on a cell phone while walking along a sidewalk may seem effortless, but it’s still a divided attention task, and not everyone can multitask effectively. If you’ve ever been walking behind someone who suddenly stops dead when their cell phone rings, you know that not everyone is capable of doing more than one task at a time.
Walking through a crowd is much more demanding, but deceptively so. Cell phone users (from what I’ve observed) seemed to be a little slow on the uptake, and didn’t take in as much of their surroundings. Crowd navigation is actually a very demanding and complex activity which uses up most of our brain’s processing ability; we just don’t realize this because it seems so intuitive. You may think that you’re merely taking a more or less direct route from A to B, but your actual path is a meandering journey. It’s a less pronounced variation of the proverbial “random walk” – characterized by subtle, but constant course changes every few seconds in response to numerous temporary obstacles. As we traverse a crowded train station, we don’t merely plot a straight line to our destination – we mentally map out a circuitous route corresponding to the gaps in the crowd. It’s a dynamic path that must be modified every second. Your complete attention is required as you continuously scan the crowd and calculate the projected paths of several people at once, try to anticipate where their bodies will (and won’t) be during the next five seconds, and then make your navigational adjustments.
If it appears that you are on a collision course with someone, it can be easily avoided by telegraphing your intentions through subtle gestures: looking or turning your head in your intended direction, turning your entire body slightly, or angling your briefcase so that it is parallel with your intended path. As long as everyone processes the visual cues and reacts quickly, everything goes smoothly. However, if you’re on a collision course with a cell phone user, you can’t always be sure that they are processing you visual cues because their brains are so engaged in their conversation that they aren’t really “seeing” you.
The second wave of technological disruption began with the introduction of a new cell phone accessory: earpieces – both wired and wireless. Up until this time, cell phone users were always easy to spot in a crowd because they were holding their phone up to their ear – a visual cue that they were not as attentive as their neighbours. Once cell phone earpieces became popular, this visual cue was gone, making it more difficult to determine (at least from a distance) who was paying attention to their surroundings, and who wasn’t.
The third, and arguably the most intense, wave of obliviousness descended upon us when texting supplanted voice calling. This was a significant social change because an increasing number of the downtown office commuters were no longer aware of their immediate environment. Their heads were down, fixed on their tiny screens, and they were oblivious to everything and everyone. Again, it’s easy to spot the texters, even from a distance: they have a moderate-to-slow walking speed with no speed variations. They walk in a straight line from A to B. They seem to have no peripheral vision and appear to be unaware of the existence of others. As a result, they are unable to sense when they may be on a collision course with others.
Our Technological Curse
I appreciate and enjoy modern technology as much as anyone else, but it can often be a double-edged sword. While social media and mobile devices eliminate geographical boundaries and make us feel more connected to our friends and family, this enhanced feeling of connectedness comes at a price. Mobile devices have shifted our attention to our smartphones, and away from our both our immediate environment and the people who inhabit it. Many of us no longer hold our heads up and enjoy our neighbourhood as we take a leisurely walk down the street. Instead, we face the ground and stare at our phone screens.
People may joke about the coming zombie apocalypse as they compare it to our incessant use of mobile devices, but that observation is not too far from the truth. Walk down any busy urban street and you’ll see a plethora of people who are engrossed in their own little world, paying absolutely no attention to what’s happening around them. The disappearance of our crowd navigating skills is one symptom of a much larger problem. Despite the promises of a hyper-connected existence through social media, we are becoming increasingly insular in our daily lives. Our communication is constant, but it’s now virtual rather than face-to-face.
The town of Fort Lee, New Jersey took extreme measures recently, and banned texting while walking. Violators will face an $85 fine. It’s a shame that some towns have to legislate a sense of awareness, but this to me is a sign that our fixation with mobile devices (at the expense of actual human interaction) is something that needs to be addressed. One generation ago, before smartphones and texting, individuals functioned as part of a greater whole, much like a beehive or an ant colony. We had our own goals, but we were also cognizant of our surroundings and acutely aware of each other. The growing and unrestrained use of smartphones may one day convert our cohesive communities into little more than collections of individuals who merely happen to live in close proximity to each other.
I have nothing against the judicious use of mobile devices, but we must exercise restraint. In my opinion, the company of flesh and blood humans will always trump avatars or words on a screen. One web advice columnist advises that it’s never acceptable to check your mobile device while on a date, for similar reasons.
In my blog post Slaves To The Machine, I wrote about one of the supreme ironies of the 20th century: we built machines to serve us, but ultimately ended up serving them. Today, we are not only serving our creations, we are regularly ignoring our fellow human beings in order to do so.
Always remember what’s important: people, not pixels.