23 February 2016

Brave New World (or The rise of the Zombies)

In my working life as a civil servant, I used to do the daily commute from the suburbs to the London city centre. It involved standing on crowded platforms at something like 8 am often in freezing or wet conditions waiting for a crowded commuter train to come in that hadn't been cancelled by snow on the line, leaves on the line, extreme heat on the line or even a body on the line. When the train came in, there'd be a mad scramble for the doors which (no matter how hard you tried to calculate it scientifically) never stopped in front of the spot you were standing. Once on the train, there was a choice - to find an unoccupied seat (which at that time of the morning was a miracle) or to stand up in the small lobbies pressed against other commuters, usually with my nose under someone's armpit. People read newspapers - usually large ones which they had difficulty opening when squashed against someone else and often you would get someone's elbow in your face, as they tried to attempt it. Some read books which were less of a hazard of invading someone's space. Some even looked out of windows or slept. You generally knew who your fellow commuters were as you saw them every day and began to notice if they were not there. 

Those were the days when computer technology was still in its infancy and probably to a large extent still in the womb. Mobile phones were the size of bricks and  were used purely to phone somebody. Computers were things that were the size and weight of a small fridge and were shared by a whole corridor of offices. When we finally progressed to one computer per room it was like a brave new world. We didn't even dream of one computer per desk in those days. Even so there was no internet, so the computers were there to crunch out numbers or data or to use as word-processors. A printer was not even in the same room, so often you would send a message to print something and hope, fingers crossed, that when you had hiked halfway across the building and down into the basement, you had something to collect at the end of it.

Having now spent a good few years out of the commuter environment, I have had reason recently (because of hospital appointments) to catch the train a few times into the heart of London in the rush-hour. Oh my word, what a difference. Of course the delays and cancellations don't change; nor the excuses of this or that on the line; nor the mad scramble for the door when the train pulls in. But what has changed are the commuters. It is like entering a strange planet where people stare zombie-like into screens. On a recent trip I observed that EVERYONE in the carriage had an oblong device in their hand -  some about 5  x 3 inches  or some about 8 x 6 inches into which they stared. They used their fingers to brush off invisible crumbs on it in a sort of swiping action or to press buttons which would show up dancing candy or photographs. Some even watched moving pictures which looked suspiciously like Eastenders or Game of Thrones. Some appeared to have bits of string coming out of their ears and these were connected to the screens. As we pulled into stations, there were more people standing around on the platforms doing the same, staring into their hand-held screens. All had heads bent down, staring towards their laps. Nobody, but nobody (except me, of course) stared out of the window and watched real life pass by. I wondered if I were to ask any one of them to tell me what colour the sky was that day or describe the houses they had just passed, whether any one of them could answer correctly. Do they spend their whole life staring at screens? Will they die being totally unaware of real life around them? Do they  not notice the seasons changing or streets being demolished and rebuilt? I honestly felt I was surrounded by zombies.

courtesy of Getty Images

Out on the street, as I pondered this modern phenomenon, a woman walked towards me, head buried in her screen, string coming out of her ears, and, if I had not been the one to move, we would have collided. Brave new world indeed.


Eurodog said...

Yes. I agree with every word.
I was in London in the summer. I was on the tube in the rush hour after battling with crowded escalators, endless corridors, platforms filled with people, people marching even running with purpose on an unmarked course, people pressed in a carriage like sardines. I was so perplexed at the sight of all those devices, a young man stood up and offered me his seat. Nobody talked. Nobody laughed. Silence. Just the noise of the train rushing through the tunnel.
I live in Brussels and the same devices are in use. Continentals are more verbose so devices are used to discuss food among other things: "What shall we eat tonight?"
You can drift in and out of conversations about buying clothes, school reports, holiday plans, dates, movies, family feuds, house prices, football, income tax, EU.
If you want to know anything about anything, a bus ride or a metro ride will do the trick.

Maggie May said...

It's the same where I live. Everyone seems to be absorbed with their screens except older folk who still like to talk.
I tell my grandchildren that pretty soon people won't have voice boxes (because they're never used) and that everyone will have giant thumbs and no one will have feet (as no smaller person seems to like to walk anymore). Maybe peoples faces will end up like a screen.... who knows.
They just roll their eyes!
Maggie x

Jeanette said...

Yes, I take a bus into work everyday and that's pretty much what it looks like. I usually have my face in my Kindle reading.

Rab said...

I've just been contemplating the same thing- a week later though. I remember those kind of commutes too. I got the bus into Edinburgh for about 2 years and used to note too when people were not there. People listened to walkmans and the like but were still very much aware of others around them. Certainly not the case today.

Congrats on the 400th post too. Sorry I missed it. Also could not agree more on what is happening to the NHS. Its disgusting how these young overworked professionals are being treated.

All the best


Flowerpot said...

I haven;'t been to London for a long while but I can well imagine it. What will happen to everyone;s imagination? What will books of the future be about?

K Ville said...

Many are reading newspapers and books on their screens just like they used to be reading newpapers and books before. No one actually talked to each other on the trains in London before smart-phones now they are talking (but to people on the internet or on their phones). Everything is different but nothing has really changed.

PS - how do you spot a northerner in the south, they are the one talking to people around them.