Whenever I go out, I limit my use of my devices. After all, I can use my phone or my tablet to my heart’s content while at the privacy of my home, so I don’t see much point in devoting too much time on my devices while I’m out in public.
Instead, I choose to use the time to look around, to appreciate the designs of the world around me, both of nature and of man, and to observe people. I especially enjoy observing people. I would sometimes sit alone in a coffee shop or a restaurant, pick a good vantage point, and just watch people. People are fascinating creatures. What are the complex lives hidden behind the visible superficial? I wonder. Why does that woman slouch with her hands in her pockets, why does that man smack his lips loudly as he smokes his cigarette? Why does the child drum his fingers on his cheek, why does the old lady cover her mouth after drinking her water? Do these people have children? pets? privileges? debts? What are they thinking about right now? celebrating? planning? worrying? grieving?
And I observe, in this middle and upper class society in which I live, that so many people, youth and otherwise alike, spend most of their time on their gadgets. Phone in hand, eyes on screen, flicking the idle minutes away, sometimes with a pair of headphones blaring music into their ears, while sauntering on the sidewalk, seemingly without any mind for a spike or an open manhole that could put them in grave peril faster than they could swipe for the next Instagram update.
And sometimes, I wonder: Why do these people even bother to go out, to get dressed and to drive out, to deal with the traffic and the crowds, only to spend most of their time with their eyes on a screen, with their music drowning out the sounds around them, when they could do the same at home, and far more comfortably? Is the world around us, this middle to upper class world, really so terrible, that the best way to deal with it, even as we choose to head out into it for one reason or another, is to escape from it?
I think that when we spend too much time plugged in while we’re out of our homes, we lose out on a great opportunity to see the world for the way it really is. True, there’s still advertising everywhere, but not as much as on the internet. There’s less embellishment, and far more reality, and in general people are far less guarded. That grimace on the woman’s face as she bites into a piece of hot pepper, the tears in the man’s eyes as he sneezes and blows his cold-ridden nose into a sloppy handkerchief, the piercing look in the mother’s eyes as she reprimands her child for being too noisy, the way the old man curses as he trips on the stairs — these are all less than Facebook-picture perfect, but they’re the most honesty you can get from people without invading their privacies. And when we choose to look at our screens instead, we miss out on all of that. We become like pet horses blinkered by our iPhones, except we are blinkered not by a master, but by our own choice.
It’s understandable. We’re often busy, and reality is not as pretty as what has been prepared for us by our social media friends. It’s far easier to look at the well-made-up face and the fancy dresses, than to watch an average family argue with one another as they shop for their groceries. But there’s so much to learn from the mundane. So much to learn about what’s real and what’s not, and how to act accordingly. Or how to take advantage of the opportunity, if that is your style.
Whichever, the online world will always be there wherever we may be that has an internet connection; the outside world is more difficult to visit by comparison. Doesn’t it make more sense to actually be present, so as to not waste the efforts that we’ve made into venturing into the real world?
Happily enough, not everyone ignores the world around us. There are still people who choose to partake of the lessons that it has to offer. I remember one morning when I was in a coffee shop, watching people as usual. Sitting by a huge glass window, I was at a good place to watch the people walking by. As I ate my bagel, an old man sat in another table across mine. He may have been at least seventy; I’m not too sure. Like I, he had ordered a bagel, though he seemed to prefer the strawberry jam over my favored cream cheese. And like I, he did not have a phone in his hand. His seat, his vantage point, was just as good as mine for its purpose. He looked at me, and I looked at him, gave him a small smile, a nod, and raised my fork in acknowledgment. He smiled back and raised his coffee at me, and we passed the next half-hour watching other people in silence.
(Written from the comfort of my home)