We should all wear nametags. That way we’d be able to say hi to each other as we walk by, and let’s face it: You don’t kill someone if you know their name. Alas, this only works in the world of “Seinfeld” – real life, just as much in need of amity and kindness, is not that simple.

Sarah Royce

A couple of weeks ago, I had to bring some old textbooks to campus to finally sell back after months of procrastination. Because they wouldn’t fit in my usual backpack, I carried an extra bag, which must have weighed in somewhere around 70 pounds. Being a commuter, I had to take the bus from an off-campus parking lot. In the bustle of finding a seat on the bus while balancing two heavy bags and a forbiddingly fluffy winter coat, I didn’t notice that my extra bag became caught up in a seat. As I yanked it free, a seam split and everything from “The Economics of Public Issues” to “South-East Asia: A Political Profile” scattered everywhere.

I half expected a rush of people to help me retrieve my belongings, but looking back on it now, I see this was an unfair expectation. It was 10:30 in the morning; these people had had a trying commute and were just beginning to momentarily relax when I decided to litter everything I owned at their feet. No, they should not have to set aside their newspapers for half a second and pick up the one book lying on their feet; it was my job to spend the next 10 minutes collecting books, pencils and loose papers from sticky corners, underneath seats and between people’s legs, all while stumbling and tumbling as the rickety bus barreled down State Street.

I seriously believe that three years ago, this situation would have been different. Though they still would be able to avert their eyes and pretend to not see what was happening, the others on the bus could not have pretended to not hear my disaster and would have been compelled to pick up at least the one thing lying closest to them. Which brings me to the ultimate evil I encountered that day – iPods.

Americans are known worldwide for being some of the most impersonal, uncongenial people anywhere. From our “plastic smiles” to our superficial small talk, we’re all too happy to just give a feeble “What’s up?” (not expecting an actual answer, of course) before moving on along our way. Where Europeans may hug and even kiss, a simple, meaningless hand wave is a viable enough greeting for the average American.

While sad, this is fine – until we realize we are becoming more and more curt and cold as we go along. Just a couple of decades ago, we still valued the community atmosphere of town living, but now many people may go through a whole day without having an actual conversation. Technology is flying ahead, and its advance gives us the opportunity to avoid many personal encounters, but the level of unfriendliness found in everyday encounters today is troubling.

Being withdrawn to our own thoughts, reading or music during the little bits of downtime we get between the stressful endeavors of everyday life is understandable, but it’s becoming easier – and thus more common – today. Whereas in the past, two passengers may have actually talked to each other, today every passenger dons sleek white headphones and dreamily hums to himself.

It seems 90 percent of the University owns an iPod, or at least some sort of MP3 player. No longer do people use the walk between classes to converse with friends or soak in the sounds of the world around them. Instead, they knowingly choose to become oblivious to everything around them by immersing themselves completely in the high-decibel tunes escaping from their earbuds. Now I hear even class lectures are available via podcast – so there’s yet another social encounter we can avoid. Staying in one room all day, speaking on the cell phone, task managing on the PDA, text messaging on the Blackberry and doing class work on the iPod can constitute a whole day and no other people are required. Brilliant. As if cell phones were not impersonal enough, iPods now give people yet another way of ignoring everyone around them.

America has always been about the individual. From self-starters to entrepreneurial visionaries, our society values individual ingenuity above all else. But in today’s polarized world, withdrawing ourselves further from our community is not the answer. Perhaps it’s time we came to accept the fact that we do not need to constantly be wired to something and that it is OK to, once in a while, just sit and do nothing.

I’ve certainly learned as much. Before the episode on the bus, I had bought an iPod-like device, though I don’t plan on using it much now. My fellow commuters – and humans beings – deserve better than that.

Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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