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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director
Friday, December 27, 2019
How TECH DEVICES are Turning New Yorkers into RUDE, OBNOXIOUS ‘Phone ZOMBIES’
The new rudeness is digital, and it is sapping New York of its character. Shutterstock Abe Greenwald
According to a new Business Insider survey of more than 2,000 American adults, New York is the rudest city in the United States. The Big Apple got almost twice as many votes as America’s second-rudest city, Los Angeles. We should once again praise the collective wisdom of the American public, because, sorry though I am to say it, they got this one right.
There was once a romanticized notion of New York rudeness, and it tracked closely to the real-world thing. It meant a no-nonsense, loud, profanity-spiced gruffness that was unexpectedly refreshing in its disregard for social status and ultimately sweet at its core. Sadly, that isn’t the brand of rudeness that we are now dealing with.
Today, New Yorkers don’t yell at you — because they don’t notice you. You won’t hear them curse, because they’re mute. And status is paramount in their minds — whatever is flashing on their phones ranks above you, whoever you are. This is the oblivious rudeness of tech-obsessed brains plugged in to devices at all times and in all situations. The new rudeness is digital, and it is sapping New York of its character.
Sure, tech-rudeness is a global pandemic these days. But New York’s status as the No. 1 media and business hub make it the most connected, networked, wired-up city in the world. Naturally, we have contracted the worst strain of the virus.
And it is a virus.
To walk the streets of New York City today is to micro-navigate a zombie-riddled obstacle course. What makes things even more fun is that the sidewalks are flooded with a few different types of phone zombies at once. Some stop dead in their tracks to read a message without warning, forcing you to pivot at the last second while they stand still, thumbing away at their screens. (This type gets particularly high marks for rudeness when exiting a rush-hour subway car).Smartphones, like viruses, are not living things. But, also like viruses, they do their worst to imitate life once they attach themselves to a living creature. In the hands of an infected New Yorker, a phone takes over higher brain function and causes the host to spread rudeness throughout the population.
Others — the multitaskers — prefer to walk and text. Confident, they come charging at you head-down, and it’s up to you to jump out of their way or face certain injury.
Still others split the difference. Phones out, they walk successfully for a bit and then veer off course or slow down as needed to react to some new message or email. This last type can be seen drifting into pedestrians in slow-motion, like a driverless car that someone forgot to put in park.
We share the city with full-time denizens of virtual reality, and somehow they have been granted right of way.
But here is the catch. When we aren’t complaining about tech-rudeness, we are inflicting it on others. Yes, all of us. We have all come to a dead stop to read our phones, we have all texted while walking, and we have all earned the glares of pedestrians whom we have almost stumbled into.
It seems like a leap backward, doesn’t it? After all, we have had the ability to carry on live conversations with people in other places since the popular use of telephones in the 1920s. Now we are returning to written words on a page, albeit a digital one.Who knew we would find it so infectious to write to others on a tiny screen? It is true that we occasionally encounter someone video-chatting while they walk, an especially maddening practice. But this is mostly a phenomenon of busy thumbs.
It turns out the infectiousness is in our interaction with the technology, not other people. It spikes our happiness-related neurotransmitters and gives us a buzz that blots out the rest of the world. Researchers at California State University, Dominguez Hills, have demonstrated that if you can’t get to your phone to receive an incoming message, you experience a slew of physiological changes indicative of anxiety. These include increased heart rates, sweating and changes in breathing. Tech-rudeness is the rudeness of junkies who need a fix.
There is a great irony in all this. For centuries, we developed systems of etiquette and manners to guard against the temptation of slipping into more primitive ways. The threat to civility, we all assumed, came from our savage past. Getting along in a civilized world meant fighting the constant temptation to revert to our animalistic natures.
Little did we know that we were looking in the wrong direction. The threat to civility came not from our brutish origins but from our technologically advanced future. We are the brilliant engineers of our own rudeness. Which makes New York’s No. 1 spot at least some sort of triumph.