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Oblivious to Your Surroundings

October 10th, 2013

A terrible story out of San Francisco:

The man drew the gun several times on the crowded San Francisco commuter train, with surveillance video showing him pointing it across the aisle without anyone noticing and then putting it back against his side, according to authorities.

The other passengers were so absorbed in their phones and tablets they didn’t notice the gunman until he randomly shot and killed a university student, authorities said. …

“These weren’t concealed movements — the gun is very clear,” District Attorney George Gascon said. “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

In a case such as this, of course it seems horrifying that a gunman who would eventually shoot someone would go unnoticed (although how the situation would have been improved if anyone had noticed is not exactly made clear). However, there is also a clear judgment being made here: that it is a bad thing, perhaps irresponsible, negligent, or asocial, to be engrossed in a technological device in a public place.

This is one of those time I have to roll my eyes and sigh out loud.

The context here is riding a train for long periods of time, something I do on a daily basis. Without some kind of diversion, you are just sitting there looking at nothing. 99.9% of the time, nothing is happening. People are just sitting and standing. This is not a social situation. No one is interacting—nor do people want it to be that way; you’re mostly surrounded by strangers, and people get annoyed when there is too much active talking. As a result, you mostly get people being there, silent, like they would be in an elevator. However, in an elevator, you’re just there for a minute, not an hour.

What are you supposed to do, remain quietly observant and vigilant in case someone brandishes a gun?

The clear implication is not only were people “oblivious” to their surroundings, they were pathetically or irresponsibly detached because they were engrossed in electronic devices.

This has become somewhat of a popular complaint for some time now. It stems from the idea that if people engage in some new portable personal entertainment, in particular of an electronic nature, while in public, it is assumed to be impolite, like you are shutting yourself off from others.

I have never respected that complaint. It’s as if the one complaining expects everyone else in public to pay attention to them. Why?

Sure, if someone keeps bumping into other people or causes some kind of damage, that would be different. But that’s regarding something that occupies your visual attention while moving or operating a vehicle. That’s a legitimate concern, and I fully agree with laws about texting while driving. Or if there is a social event where a person attending is supposed to be paying attention to others—a party, a meeting, even just a conversation—then yes, it’s asocial to instead be absorbed in something else.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Train passengers are not driving the vehicle. Someone sitting alone in public, in a park, at a coffee shop, at a bus stop—these people are not expected to be engaged with anyone else.

So, how is it asocial or in any way wrong for these people to occupy themselves?

But that’s not the only point here—it’s not just occupying yourself, it’s doing it with some new device. Remember complaints some time back when Walkmans first came out? Same thing now. It’s the same scorn for technology that even still generates fear of crime on the Internet when the same crimes could just as easily happen in any other context.

Consider how different the reaction would be if people on the train with the gunman were reading books or engaged in conversation with someone they were traveling with. Would there be the same level of disdain, the same feeling of contempt? Almost certainly not. There would be more of a sense of shared horror, a feeling of sympathy rather than condescension. Like nobody in a movie theater noticing someone in the back row brandishing an Uzi, or no one in a library noticing the someone walking by carrying a handgun. It would be considered more proper.

But entertain yourself in public? With an electronic device? Of course not. You should be happy to ride a train for long periods of time with nothing to do. Jerk.

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