Every now and then I hear my colleagues grumbling about people walking while on their smartphones.
I say nothing. I am one of those people.
Why are you always on your phone? V asks. Disingenuously, because a) he is also “always” on his phone, my usage annoys him when he looks up and I am not sitting up awaiting his attention like a geisha, for example when a commercial comes on or the video buffers a) this is just a modification of his other lament (“stop reading”).
I’m actually reading on my phone, I tell my colleague/V . If I wasn’t on my phone, it would be a book.
Ah, that ok then, she says. (V’s having none of that).
But why is it ok? Why is a newspaper ok (these days) and not a phone? Why is a novel? (Most people have forgotten that novels were in fact triggers of moral panic back when they were in fact novel).
Is it because a phone does not allow the judge to see and thus to judge and therefore the worst is assumed? Surely these people are like cattle, following the dim light of prurient entertainment. What if they were reading philosophy? What if they were not?
If the principle in question is lack of attention to the world or lack of attention to the person one might bump into (more on that later), then shouldn’t philosophy be as unjustified as Paris Hilton? Isn’t the crime here that one is not paying sufficient attention to at worst incoming traffic, at best the bounteous sensations of the “real world”?
Would it help if we wore little stickers as we navigate public transport: forgive me, I am studying Proust.
The French have a saying – metro, boulot, dodo (eat, work, sleep). Are we not to be forgiven for not finding the metro scillintating? Why do I find my peevish colleagues less interesting than the elderly woman vehemently absorbed in candy crush?
Baudelaire invited us (okay gentlemen) to be flaneurs, wandering the city, open to impressions. (What if I were reading Baudelaire, then is it ok?).
I am passing through the worst part of my commute, a stuffy rare unairconditioned space made worse by an incline, I can only see the backs of people. I look up to see a woman with green flecks in her perfectly coiffed hair. It brings me joy but is it better or worse than the Baudelaire I could be reading? Do I have to choose?
I stare fixedly ahead of me and find nothing surprising, no moment of epiphany in the Joycean sense (I am showing off. It is my version of the “forgive me” sticker).
I have almost never bumped into anyone while on my phone. There have been a couple of near misses followed by loud sighs, always from Westerners. Chinese people seem tacitly accept that life is boring/hard – ok fine nasty, brutish and short – and we just have to endure it as best we can with whatever glowing anaesthetics we have.
Also that sometimes the world and people inside the rabbit hole are more interesting. Hence literature.
I have also never been bumped into by a person with a phone and if I have I reckon I would take it in the spirit of flaneurie.
The trick is though to get down to the nuts and bolts of it that when you walk while looking down at your phone (bow head syndrome and resultant neck pain notwithstanding) you can see the feet of approaching people and swerve in advance. You’re welcome.
All this to say that I will try my own excercise in flaneurie. Not that I’m going to stop reading and walking (podcasts have helped) but because I do observe a fair bit nevertheless and perhaps we do need some joie de (“real life”) vivre.
I wrote this post on the MTR, while walking. No humans were harmed in its making. Thank me, dear reader, for the judgement I endured to bring you this missive.