October 18, 2014
We live in a culture of mass distraction. It is easy to tune out and look the other way. The ability to ignore things is a useful adaptation. We can’t respond to all of the inputs that assail us. We’ve got work to do and our own concerns to attend to. And mostly, we want to be left alone.
But detachment and dissociation can be dangerous.
In San Francisco recently, a student, Justin Valdez, was murdered on a crowded train. Passengers, engrossed in tablets and phones, failed to notice the murderer brandishing his weapon in plain sight. The San Francisco District Attorney said that bystanders were “completely oblivious to their surroundings.” The police chief warned that people absorbed in technology are vulnerable to crime.
The Valdez murder brings to mind Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 while bystanders ignored her calls for help. This case is frequently cited in ethics and psychology textbooks as an example of diffusion of responsibility and the bystander-effect. Individuals in groups assume that others will act; and so no one does. The new problem is distracted bystanders, who don’t even notice threats.
But we should be careful about assigning blame. Technology is not to blame for the Valdez murder, nor are the bystanders — the shooter is. And while we might like people to be more aware of their surroundings, we have a right to tune out. It’s the criminals who are wrong to take advantage of the vulnerability this creates.
Electronic technologies make it a bit easier to ignore our immediate surroundings. But there is nothing new about zoning out. Before cellphones, there were books, magazines and crossword puzzles. And in crowded places, it is polite to ignore others. We avert our eyes in hallways and on elevators, respecting the privacy of others.
Some fret that high tech makes it too easy for us to be “alone together,” as MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle put it in a book with that title. Turkle worries that virtual reality and communication destroy real intimacy and human empathy. I share that concern. But there are lots of things that destroy intimacy and empathy: racism, sexism, alcoholism, etc. Virtual reality has no corner on the market of callousness.
Intimacy and empathy are important. But they are also hard work. We can’t be empathetic and aware all the time. Tuning out is a coping mechanism in a hectic, crowded world. Sometimes we need to retreat to solitude, disconnect, and disengage. We nap. We daydream. We meditate or pray. And sometimes we poke around on our cellphones.
As with most issues, the context matters. It’s rude to check email in the middle of a face-to-face conversation or to surf the web in a business meeting. And texting while driving can kill. But public transportation should be a safe place for tuning out. We ride the bus or take the train, expecting to have the freedom to read, nap or listen to music.
The world might be a better place if we were all constantly engaged with one another, if we all acted as good Samaritans all the time. But a world of good Samaritans could also be oppressive. Imagine a world where everyone is watching everyone else, looking for opportunities to help. Imagine a world of incessant empathy, where everyone is trying to connect — even in elevators, on buses, or in other crowded spaces. That world would be exhausting. And it would lack zones of privacy and places where we can be alone, even when we’re together.
A broader culture of intimacy and empathy may prevent random violence. But there is no easy answer or high-tech solution here. There is no app for foiling murder — or finding love. We tend to blame technology and hope for technological solutions to the perennial problems of being human. Our obsession with technological issues may be the biggest distraction of all. We blame our tools or hope for a better tool, while ignoring the persons who use them.
We can’t blame technology for malice or alienation. Nor can we blame technology for making us clueless and oblivious to our surroundings. Evil and obliviousness are human problems. And they existed long before the iPhone was invented.