I’ve been contemplating dialogue on public transport, or the lack thereof. It’s pretty common for people to comment on the lack of life on any of London’s tubes or buses. This isn’t because there are no people on them, quite the contrary, it’s because the people that are on them (the hundreds, tens of hundreds, thousands, millions) seem to be dead from the neck up when it comes to communication. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the start of some dystopian zombie apocalyptic drama, (unless of course the zombie apocalypse has been brought upon us by the technological advances of the last ten years), it’s more of a comment on the lack of any kind of normal communication between the individuals and the almost incestuous relationships they have with their phones and tablets.
I often call my own phone another limb, and though I haven’t quite got to the stage where I’m calling it by its own name, I am awkwardly aware of just how much I rely on it to get me through the trauma of public transport. The music I listen to drowns out the sounds of anything happening around me and I can avoid even looking at anyone by maintaining my gaze firmly on the screen; playing a game, texting a friend, probably checking Facebook or just nonchalantly flipping from one app to the next praying that the battery (now at eleven percent) doesn’t die.
The guy opposite me is so involved in what’s on his screen that he has it held up, before him, at eye level. Glancing up offers a rather disconcerting view. His right eye is a camera lens. Automatically, I become paranoid. Is he recording me? Photographing me? No. (Or at least I certainly hope not) He’s become so involved in his phone that it is less interface and more in-your-face. Does he realise how ridiculous he looks? A brief glance around the carriage shows he’s in equally absurd company. About four other people are mimicking him, interfacing with their devices in the way one might hold a conversation with someone sitting opposite you. But now I’m getting really crazy. Having a conversation with someone sitting opposite you? On public transport? Highly unlikely even if you’re with a friend, extremely alarming if the person is a complete stranger.
This is the unwritten rule of travelling in London: do not communicate with strangers on public transport. Actually, this is only one of the unwritten rules. There are quite a few of them and nearly all of them involve avoiding the people around you. Do not make eye contact, do not talk too loudly (lest other people think you’re talking to them) and do not smile. Disregarding any of these rules could have dire consequences: you could make friends that way. The worst kind of friendship, formed in the fires of public transport, one where you only have one thing in common: that you travelled on the same train, tube or bus (god forbid). This is dangerous because, surely, if you can make friends with one person, you could make friends with many. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve exclaimed that I always make “friends” on public transport. These friends aren’t people I communicate with, not at all, they are usually people who deign to park themselves next to me in a vacant seat, forcing me to shift six inches in the opposite direction and cling on for dear life. My more precarious seating position makes the wide turn of the train that bit more dangerous but is a sacrifice you have to make in order to avoid the person beside you. If you can’t talk to strangers on trains you certainly can’t touch them.
My friend across from me is clearly communicating (interfacing (in-your-facing)) in the only way acceptable these days. Holding his phone up to eye level may assuage any awkwardness he feels sitting opposite a complete stranger (me) but it doesn’t disguise the oddness of it all. We are all so desperate to escape each other, we keep disappearing behind screens and it’s not just in our own homes anymore. Out in the world, faces are no longer faces but are transfigured into half-human, half-cyborg interfaces and tablet-heads (think iPads not ecstasy). We’re socially-retarded technological geniuses. With bad battery life.