Feature

Editor's letter: Electronic cocoons

Smartphones have their upside, but city streets are now full of people walking with their heads down.

Most people on subways used to vegetate as they shuttled from home to work and then back again. A few would read, but the default position I often saw—whether on the Chicago el, the Paris Métro, the London Tube, or the New York subway—was a grim or at best neutral gaze into the middle distance, meant to avoid the unsettling hazard of catching a stranger’s eye. When the recent spate of snow drove me underground for weeks, I noticed how much that has changed. On any given trip, at least half of those people are staring at their smartphones. Some of them are playing games or reading, but on my route, which now has free Wi-Fi, a surprising number of them (I admit: I’ve peeked) seem to actually be communicating with another human being, either by text or email. In this one microcosm where the cardinal rule was always not to connect to other people, many are doing just that.

I guess that’s one upside of people spending every spare minute hunched over their smartphones. But enough is enough. City streets are now full of people walking with their heads down, and it’s common to see couples sitting at dinner in dumb silence while typing messages. Not me. I spend the whole day looking at a screen about two feet from my eyeballs. It has become vitally important to my eyesight, and my mental health, to break out of my electronic cocoon and cast my gaze farther afield. So when I ride a subway, I’d rather do so looking up and looking around. If I occasionally catch someone’s eye, so what? The immediate world can reward your curiosity, too.

James Graff

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