At Combating Technology Flu

If humans are social animals, why is it that we take every opportunity we can to avoid contact with each other?

Take the bus, for example. It’s a sort of unwritten rule on the buses at my university that once you step up from the pavement and cross the yellow line, you need to occupy yourself with something, anything other than the people around you. A book or the world whirring by outside the windows will suffice just fine, but the usual distraction (protective force field?) of choice is a smartphone, usually complete with earbuds. Tuck the little pulsing conch shells into your ears, and suddenly the possibility of having to deal with inconvenient human expectations and bothersome interactions all but disappears, whether you’re on public transit or walking or eating lunch by yourself or studying alone.

About two weeks ago, I broke my earbuds. They were cheap little things, nothing I would miss, but at first I just couldn’t find the time to buy another pair. Not having constant access to my music meant that I had much less use for my phone—3G access is pretty patchy in my city, and 4G is nonexistent—so I had to do other things to fill my time in transit. I read more. I looked around. I interacted and met some pretty interesting people (including one very attractive guy whose name and number it didn’t occur to me to get until after he’d departed the bus. Derp).

During my silent period, I noticed something: no matter where I was, no matter what the weather was like, no matter how many people were around, every single person I saw who wasn’t participating in some activity with a defined purpose was glued to a smart phone. Everyone was so busy using text messages, Facebook, Twitter and who knows what other apps to be social with people who weren’t present that they didn’t even notice the real, flesh-and-blood people around them. I saw people cross gorgeous green spaces and busy streets without even looking up once from their screens. It was absolutely, positively Bradburian.

This is the next pandemic, folks. Dependence on technology for brain stimulation at every waking moment is spreading rapidly across America and throughout the developed world. Soon, if it hasn’t already, it will begin to affect our interpersonal relationships, our sense of adventure and our collective IQ. However, the thing about contagious diseases is that humans eventually find a cure. Polio has a vaccine, strep throat has antibiotics and Bieber fever has, well, Justin Bieber. Curing tech flu will take a little more effort from all of us than just taking a shot, popping a pill or browsing, but it is possible.

Now, some people think that in order to cleanse your life of excessive technology use, you have to get away from it altogether: run away to the woods, chop lumber, and ruminate about self-reliance. Not so, my friends. Some technology use is necessary, and some is genuinely fun and beneficial. You don’t have to emulate Emerson in any way (in fact, please don’t) to get a little better at being where you are instead of living your life in cyberspace. Below, find an easy step-by-step guide to get you from on your phone to in the world.

What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the world of battling tech flu as being able to stay conscious of the world around you even if you use technology regularly. (The last six words were unnecessary.)

  1.        Move the phone. You don’t have to move your head. You don’t even need to take out your earbuds. Just slowly (so you don’t startle yourself) move your phone (or tablet, or laptop) to a place where you can’t see the screen and keep your head at the exact same angle, staring where your lit-up LCD screen used to be. Look! Grass! Shoes! Maybe even animals or bugs or small children! How interesting! There was a whole world of stuff hiding behind your screen!
  2.        Stretch your neck. Okay, this one’s a little more difficult: rotate your face a full 180 degrees up. Feel the stretch. It’s been a while, huh? There’s a whole sky up there. Maybe there are clouds. Maybe there are stars. Or maybe it’s just blue. Nice, right? Maybe you can even see some tops of trees. Trees are cool.
  3.        Now, slowly, relax your neck. Don’t startle yourself. Bring your head back down so your chin is parallel to the floor. This is when it gets interesting. There are whole trees, not just tops. There are buildings—some pretty, some ugly, all worth looking at. And then there are people. Have a look at their faces. They move. They make expressions. They say things. It’s like a video but with breath. Observe them for a while. Real-life humans tell some cool stories even if you can’t hear them, using an obsolete form of communication called “body language”. See what you can figure out about people—who’s breaking up with their significant other? Who just got an A on a test? Who’s so distracted by their phone that they run into a telephone pole? (Resist the urge to take a video.)
  4.        Don’t panic. Now we’re gonna bring some auditory stimulation up in here. Ready? Okay: take… out… your… earbuds. WHOA. It’s so quiet out in the world. Listen. There are people moving around. There’s probably some strange rustling. Is that… wind? Does that still happen? Some sounds are ugly—there’s construction, maybe somebody burns their finger on something and curses really loud—but it’s all… interesting. There’s a story here. Go live in it.

At Riding Public Transit


Photo by Queensland Rail.

I’m convinced that if purgatory exists, it looks exactly like a full parking garage. That’s why I ride my university’s buses: if I drove to class I’d have to fight the beast that is campus parking, which can only be bested before 8 o’clock in the morning. Arrive after that and you’ll likely spend the next hour driving in circles or parked at the entrance to the garage like a stalker, waiting to claim the vacant spot of the next person to walk in and drive away.

If you live in a major metropolitan area, chances are you use public transit daily—buses, subways, trolleys, anything that moves a lot of people at one time on a prescribed route. These people movers put legions of strangers in close proximity with one another, sometimes for extended periods of time. Let’s be real: holding on for dear life to a railing above your head for half an hour while you slide around like a cat on a waxed floor every time the bus stops is not a pleasant experience, nor is sitting on a hygienically-questionable seat with a stranger’s nether regions in your face for any length of time.

We can all safely assume, though, that people who are riding public transit need to be riding public transit. If we could avoid it without financial strain or added stress, we all would. Let’s a take a moment to review some practices that will keep public transportation as painless as possible for everybody.

What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the world of public transit as not causing emotional or physical damage to your fellow passengers and/or the driver of your preferred method of transportation, and generally being not unpleasant.

1.       Read a map. Every form of public transportation in every city everywhere has some kind of map or plan available for everyone to read; some of these even come in the form of a customizable app. Get at least somewhat familiar with where your closest stop is and what route you should be taking. Caution: your preferred form of public transit may not stop directly outside your destination. You may have to (gasp) do some walking.

2.       Be polite to the driver. If you ride a bus, you need to at least say “hello” and “thank you” to your driver every time you ride. Bus driving is important and thankless work, and a little appreciation has the potential to brighten someone’s entire day. If that’s not enough motivation for you to positively acknowledge your driver, consider the fact that people who drive buses have the power to decide the character of your 45-minute standing commute: smooth, or full of sharp turns, quick stops and potholes. Sincere thanks go a long way.

3.       Remain flexible. If you’re stuck standing on a crowded bus or train, be prepared to either bend with the turns and sudden stops or fall down (especially if someone you’re riding with is mean to the driver—because of course you would never do that). Sit as soon as possible.

4.       If you have to ask, give up your seat. The elderly. The disabled. People with injuries. People who are carrying a lot of stuff or something heavy. People who are traveling with small children. Pregnant women. Women who appear to be possibly pregnant. All of these are people for whom you should give up your seat if there are no others available. If nothing else, you’ll accumulate some good karma, and new seats free up every time there’s a stop. For the love of all that is good, though, just stand up silently when you’re offering your seat to a “pregnant” woman. If you congratulate a woman or ask about her due date and she’s not pregnant, she will likely stand back up and slap you or possibly cry. (Those are also distinct possibilities when you congratulate women who are heavily pregnant. Proceed with caution.)

5.       Keep yourself to yourself. Try and take up the least possible amount of space when you’re on public transit: arms in, possessions held close to your body, not touching other passengers if you can possibly help it. Don’t eat anything smelly, discuss personal business, or talk loudly on the phone while en route. I have heard more about the state of people’s romantic relationships, work problems and sexual health on the bus than I ever wanted to. Also, this should go without saying, but sexual harassment is never okay, and it’s even less okay when your prey is stuck with you for the next six stops and can’t do anything about it. Keep it classy, people.

And, for extra credit,

6.       Open up every once in a while. If the person next to you seems not entirely antisocial, try striking up a conversation. Some of the most interesting people I know are people I’ve been stuck in a tin can with while we were trying to get to our 9:30 a.m. classes.


It would really not suck if you’d like this blog’s page on Facebook. Thanks!