The other day, whilst riding that most wonderful of contraptions – the Halifax city bus – I was given yet another opportunity to delve into another person’s life, somewhat against my wishes. There is nothing like the trapped confines of a large bus crammed with ten too many people, all of whom are chatting away on their cell phones, to hit home the realization that we need to buy a car. The amount of personal information that people spew forth on their phones never ceases to astonish me. On this trip in particular, I learned that the young lady behind me was upset at her boyfriend because he wouldn’t… umm… reciprocate her oral attentions (just remembered this blog isn’t flagged for “adult content”), that the older lady beside me was still fighting with her daughter over what to do with their dead cat (it’s body was taking up space in her freezer and she really wanted it gone) and that the young lady across the aisle was fighting with her cell phone company. Seems she hadn’t paid her bill in three months, but, at least according to her, she shouldn’t have to pay those bills, as they hadn’t sent her the actual bills. Makes sense, right?
We live in a time when the line between the personal and the private is at, dare I say it, an all-time blurriest. Between Tweets, blogs, Facebook status updates and text messages, I know more about my family and friends than I ever did before – some to the good, some to the bad. I can live with that, I actually like most of them, and knowing what they are up to is usually interesting.
But the constant stream of information that we are bombarded with about the lives of complete strangers is blowing my mind. And obviously I am in the minority – if I weren’t then “reality” shows wouldn’t be as popular as they are. Apparently I am one of only a select few people that is not interested in the deep inner lives of those I share my commutes with – and that got me to thinking about the way our society views itself, and how it has done so in the past.
Perhaps my generation (and we’re not that old yet!) will be the last one to really have any idea of what a “private life” meant. Maybe we’ll be the last ones to not assume that every action and every statement we make is part of the public domain, that every moment there is a camera on us making a YouTube video, and that every single one of us will at some point appear either on the internet or on some funny video program.
I don’t mean to say that it is de facto a bad thing. I am a firm proponent of free speech, but also of integrity and standing behind what you say. Anonymous posts on the internet bother the hell out of me – if you are afraid to stand behind what you say, then you shouldn’t be saying it. Sure, there may be times when security requires that you have some sort of shield for your data (I know I don’t want my bank account information on the net, though it is due to my eBay purchases and PayPal account) but if you are saying something, have the courage to stand behind your opinion and be taken to account for it.
Or maybe it isn’t really about knowing that information – maybe the trick to it all is learning not to listen to what is happening around me. I know that a lot of people have managed this trick, surrounded only by their own data, their own music playing in their earbuds, their own news / books / games streaming on their tablets. While I am usually not one to promote conversation on the bus (or in any public setting) with a stranger, I do see our cutting off of each other from our lives and our sphere of awareness to be a problem. The more we tune out, the less connected we are. I think it is easier for the culture of apathy that I have blogged about to propagate when we disconnect from those around us, and I think that is a Very Bad Thing.
I’m a terrible one for sci-fi analogies lately, but in the graphic novel series Risings Stars, one of the heroes helps to turn entire neighborhoods from crime filled to crime free by getting the residents to do one simple thing – go out on their front porches rather than watching television in their basements. Seems like that is exactly what I am thinking about today – we are less likely to engage in behavior we know is wrong when there are people watching. We are more connected as a society when we talk to each other, when we know each other’s names. When we are more connected, we take responsibility for each other, we know that we are a part of something larger, a community.
So I think it is time to do something about it. This is hell for me – I don’t really like people all that much, so if I can do it, you can too.
Why not reach out to your neighbors today, whether they are your bus mates, the person in line at the Christmas tree shop or the people who live down the hall from your apartment? Why not stop and say hello to a stranger? I guarantee you’ll hear some things that don’t impact upon your life, and maybe even some odd things you wish you hadn’t heard. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll connect with another human being, if only for a moment. And maybe, if we all make those connections, maybe we can slow this whole thing down.