Your Private Little Bubble
He had Special Forces written all over him - a big beefy guy with a hard body and a military haircut. He was wearing a t-shirt with a big peace sign on it made out of weapons. What didn't jibe was the gold around his neck and the heavy gold watch on his wrist. So maybe Blackwater. I noticed him because he was playing air guitar, mouthing silent words and shaking his body to a heavy metal tune that no one else could hear.
He was sitting across from me in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station in New York City last week. He was too scary to be crazy, I figured, so I knew the music he was twitching to wasn't come through the ether. Anyway, the PA system was playing Bach. When I checked again, I saw a jack in his ear. He was still dancing as his train was called and he walked away.
He may have been extreme, but he certainly wasn't the only example I saw in New York of how the world as we know it is now being brought to us by Samsung.
I decided to try an experiment while I was in New York: No screens. At home I spend my life looking at screens: computer screens, television screens, movie screens. Enough, I thought. My eyes are red, my friend's apartment doesn't have a television, and if I didn't borrow her computer, I could be away from screens for a whole week.
I only wanted to refresh my technological palate, but being screen-free made me extremely sensitive to the screens around me. And I mean all around me.
At the ballet, it seemed as if every other person was either texting or checking messages. The lights of hundreds of flickering LEDs were stronger than the lights in the theater. A canned female voice had to announce "Please turn off your cellphones" before the show. That's a standard announcement now.
Walking down the street, virtually everyone was talking to someone who wasn't there, even when there was someone there. In the past, that used to mean: watch out! Crazy homeless person. Now it means the 10-year-old kid on a skateboard, the businessman and the little old lady shopping at Zabar's all have cell phones.
The New York Times had a front page story about television screens now being installed in taxicabs. Very soon, all the cabs will have them. You can use them to pay by credit card, and you can watch trailers for upcoming network shows while you're stalled in traffic. You'll never have to look out into the street again.
And yes, in a multitude of languages, cab drivers talk on their cell phones while they drive.
Huge television screens have replaced most of the billboards in Times Square. I stood transfixed on Broadway one night, watching a brilliant 20-minute M&M candy commercial. All the networks and cable stations were plugging their shows. People were surfing and lying on beaches high above me as I kicked my way through the slush.
The supermarket has machines that use screens to check you out - literally. A canned female voice issues instructions on how to do it: "Put your vegetables on the scale to be weighed, then press 2." It's a little scary. But no more scary than trying to use the ticket machines at Amtrak when you're racing for a train.
Over dinner, a friend wondered if she should be worried because her daughter was constantly texting. It's great that she's so skilled at multitasking, she said, but maybe she's missing some part of her childhood. And while it's nice to have virtual friends, do they come at the expense of actual ones? (Note that we weren't talking about cyberstalkers, pedophiles and cyberbullies - the serious dangers on the Web.)
It struck me that somewhere down the road, we might expect some kind of huge Buddhist awakening in this country, as people begin to realize that they haven't "been here now" for maybe a decade or two. Whole chunks of our lives are disappearing into screens.
Our enemies no longer have to dive-bomb planes into buildings. Just block a few satellite feeds, cut off our electric power and sit back and watch us squirm.
I'm not being a Luddite here. I love computers, the Internet and scripted television dramas. But I had a startling sense of isolation in the city that came from being surrounded by so many people who were so unaware of their surroundings.
Happily, my home state of Vermont is still a little bit rural. It's not a perfect Eden of a place (satellite dishes are everywhere), but cell phone coverage is spotty and many people still have dial-up Internet. We enjoy a sense of community awareness.
Media was once a communal experience. Radio allowed the whole nation to hear the same corny Vaudeville jokes. Now we all have our own individual television sets, and what we miss we can see on the Web. Going to the movies has turned into Netflix. Gaming dominates teenage lives.
Media consumption has become intensely personal. There will never be Beatles moment on Ed Sullivan again. Online, we can read only what suits us our particular prejudices - the Goddess of Serendipity is going on welfare.
The New Yorker has a story this week about how books are being replaced by streaming media. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study, book readers are more likely than streaming media addicts to exercise, visit museums and engage in other civic activities.
That's what I was seeing in New York: millions of media bubbles floating around; everyone is absorbed in their own little world. The intersection of our social lives is disappearing fast.
So is this the world we want to live in?