“The Scourge”

Writing in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman, whose eponymous blog routinely addresses subjects like lost airline baggage, the debt ceiling, and how you’re more racist and sexist than you think, wonders what would happen if more of us stopped ducking out of the way for wayward pedestrians absorbed in their phones. The solution he proposes is a “politeness enforcement tactic” — let the collision be inevitable, until people start looking where they’re going again. An eye for an eye, of course, being the optimal way to deal with such situations.

In Burkeman’s view, and as discussed here before, “distracted walking” has become a major concern:

[H]ere in New York, in the last few months, it feels as though we’ve crossed a threshold. Smartphones have been ubiquitous for years, of course – but much more recently, there seems to have been a shift in social norms. For many people, the unwritten rules of sidewalk choreography now include this: if what I’m reading or watching on my phone is sufficiently interesting to me, it’s entirely up to you to get out of my way, just as if I were very frail, or three years old, or blind. Or a lamppost.

It’s interesting how all of this distracted  phone use gets chalked up to texting when texting likely has little to do with what is going on in these ambulant devices. How much of this cellular oblivion is reasonable? While wandering at night through an unknown neighborhood, I checked the phone to see where I was, the bright maps app cutting through the darkness, mangling my night vision. At least, I figured, the rare oncoming car might have a better chance of avoiding a collision with me as I edged down the road with my face swathed in eerie light. Distracted by email, I shifted away from the map momentarily, returning later to reassure myself I was still on course. So what if I was? Blinded, my senses attuned to the rustlings of plants and animals, the clumsy crunching of grit and leaves underfoot. Shameful, to be inspecting the vague greyish map of the territory as though it were an appropriate substitute for the real landscape.

Specifics aside, the phenomenon that Burkeman is witnessing seems to lack validity in Detroit. While people are often on their phones, social norms here dictate that eye contact should be made while out on the street, and most likely a greeting should be issued, if not a protracted volley of pleasantries. Another missing piece is in the numbers. Detroit just doesn’t have enough people to ensure frequent sidewalk collisions with the few rude souls who refuse to engage with their non-virtual environment. While stumbling along one chilly day, probably reading about a “redesigned moufle” to keep phones within operating range in frigid temperatures, and the fingers that use them nimble, I crossed paths with another “oblivious” phone user. We looked up and smiled at each other. The moment was very nice, and, I guess, very Detroit.

Tahka, "redesigned moufle" to keep phones cozy. Heart-warming.

Tahka, “redesigned moufle.” Heart-warming.

Will this unfortunate tendency arrive in our city anytime soon? An increase in population most likely means more people are on the sidewalks, and these newcomers are often of the smartphone-using set (which includes, oh, just about everybody now). If we reframe the real “scourge” as valuing one’s own moral comfort over everybody else’s, we should be able to keep out of harm’s way.

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