I have no doubt that at least 50% of people reading the above headline will cringe at the often-lamented image of being in a space where everyone is looking down at their phones while white earbud cords dangle from their heads. We sure love to internally scoff at the teenager or young professional, seemingly immersed in their own micro-digital world while walking around, sitting on a bench or, yes… riding public transit.
But let’s think about this for a moment. We know that a major reason people shy away from cities is the densely populated public realm they occupy… you are surrounded by strangers on the street, you have little control over who sits next to you on public transit, and you have no idea how how your interactions with the people you come into contact with are going to act or behave in your presence. The “ideal” way we live (in homogeneous communities with houses featuring big buffering yards) and travel (in overly spacious SUVs) typically aims to negate the unpredictable encounters with daily or even occasional unknown people or populations. In essence, we create worlds in which we have as much control as possible over how much we choose to interact with the outside world.
But today, we are seeing a re-emergence of public transit popularity, and an increased desire for urbanity in general. There are hundreds of factors that are likely contributing to this trend, but the one I’ve become increasingly intrigued with is the emergence of the smartphone. I would hypothesize that smartphones may be replacing the automobile as the dominant symbol of “freedom” for young people in the United States. With this in mind, public transit allows riders to use their phones while traveling. In a car, on the other hand, it’s forbidden. The desire to connect, produce content, consume information or even just play a game at any time is so strong in our culture, it likely has a part in the shifting of our transportation habits.
I’ll go one step further here and say that these devices, in concert with another powerfully immersive tool, the earbud/headphone, has allowed us to create our own psychological micro-worlds. Often, we mock this “zombie-like” approach to moving about our surroundings with little actual focus on the environment we are moving through… but this ability for individuals to create a sort of virtual sensory bubble may very well be part of the creation of mental space and “comfort” in an environment that has traditionally challenged these two privileges.
Think about it. If you’re on a crowded train without a phone or music, you are forced to engage with a potentially unsettling environment. For those who aren’t comfortable with this, it can be THE reason to negate the possibility of riding public transit, or living in a city altogether. But if you’re immersed in a smartphone with headphones on, you’ve now created a tiny barrier between you and your surroundings. Your eyes are fixed on your screen, not the people in front or across from you. Your attention is elsewhere, so you may not see or notice something that would otherwise make you feel uncomfortable. Your senses are captivated by the music on your earbuds, so you don’t hear the person shouting or the loud noise of the train over rough track. And finally, to outsiders, you look mentally “unavailable,” or disconnected from reality, tied to your phone and your music. Just like that, you’ve created separation between yourself and a wildly variable and incredibly dense urban environment.
Is this ideal? Of course not. We would all like everyone to embrace cities and public transit because for its ability to connect us to others, as well as expose us to a diverse collection of humanity we might not otherwise be privy to. But the reality is, the under-appreciated power of an earbud and a good tune or podcast might be the thing that is making more Americans comfortable and even excited about public transit and city living. The micro-worlds we create with digital technology, ironically, could be the first step to engaging with the diverse urban environments we’ve sought to avoid for far too long. While not a perfect solution, earbuds and smartphones may be allowing more Americans to take some of their comfort with them as they move through an urban world of nuance and unpredictability.