2.20 Personal Spaces in Public Places

In a small town, it's often said that everyone knows your business. In a city, you are privy to everyone else’s business, whether you want to be or not. The prominent German urbanologist, Wolf Hamburger, believed the personal is becoming public: “As populations grow and the individual’s personal space erodes, public areas are being overtaken by activities which beforehand we would never have thought to relocate anywhere except behind closed doors.” We increasingly plug in to new technologies that seem to be getting smaller and more mobile, and as Hamburger exemplifies, our personal lives are spilling out in public places. These mobile devices are devised to make our lives easier, not more transparent. But it is not the fault of these machines. As the old cliché goes, A poor craftsman blames the tools. Disclaimer: I am an avid cell phone-checking addict. Please note that the word ‘contradiction’ is used in the title of this blog for a reason.

Public transit, not personal transit. On a busy subway, a woman was trying to find a new ring tone for her cell phone. Her current one obviously did not suit her needs. She went through every available tone, every chime, dog bark, beep, click and clack. Totally oblivious to the other passengers. Just as we thought she found one that would make her life happier, a search for a new ring tone that just couldn't wait until she was out of earshot of at least 30 people, a ring so important, so crucial to the existence of her life as she saw it at that point in time, she started back at the beginning. Staring with daggers in our eyes, we, the members of the public, were ready to snatch that phone out of her hands and brake it into tiny pieces.

Suggestion: The government should issue licenses for mobile devices.

On a bus, during a snowstorm, a woman sat across from me. She called her friend, explained how she waited for a bus for 60 minutes – how disgraceful! – and how difficult her life was due to this delay. She hung up, called someone else. Explained how she waited for a bus for 60 minutes – how disgraceful! – and how difficult her life was due to this delay. She hung up, called someone else. Explained how she waited for a bus for 60 minutes – how disgraceful! – and how difficult her life was due to this delay. You get the point. And she was LOUD.

Hamburger continued, “We should not be concerned with privatization in a corporate sense, but in a human sense. There is a tribal aspect to inviting our private lives into the public world. But this type of tribe does not offer connection or community, only annoyance that eats away at the very core of the individual.” Privacy issues surrounding social media and other technologies are always in the news. But we are complicit, using these tools to invite total strangers into our lives.

A personal mobile device enables us to talk on the phone, text message, listen to music and watch videos. The key word here is personal. There seems to be a current trend where people have forgotten to bring their earphones with them. If I wanted to listen to music and I forgot my earphones, I would shrug and say, "Oh, damn! Maybe I’ll just read silently to myself." I guess some other people say, "I'll just play a video game or watch a movie with no earphones!" Seriously, I’ve been around people watching youtube clips of screaming monkeys driving go-carts, the volume turned up all the way.

Cameras. Everything has a camera attached to it. By placing a camera on an old model, something new is created and the rest of us are subjected to the threat of possibly always being caught on video. We should carry around waivers authorizing the use of our image - we, the stars of each other’s documentaries. But what we can’t admit is that our lives simply are not that interesting. Or, at least, mine isn’t. In the old days, meaning about 15 years ago, when you were at a concert and the band played their power ballad and the lights dimmed, people waved lighters above their heads. Now they wave phones – there’s an app that turns a phone into an image of a burning lighter. Obviously it does not carry the same emotional representation.

In the previous essay 1.39 How to Be Alone, I wrote, “A person does not come to comprehend loneliness more when they are surrounded by people and feel completely, utterly and hopelessly alone.” There is a tolerance that comes with understanding how other people’s lives bleed into your consciousness, but it can also threaten a certain amount of madness. A by-product of living so close to so many strangers. Your perception of loneliness becomes a collective sense of isolation. The irony being that many forms of technology are designed to make communication more efficient, more immediate and enable the user the element of an inter-personal experience. I shouldn't only site the mass integration of mobile devices as the sole element invading our public space. There are other, more traditional forms on display.

Food. Back on the subway, the consumption of entire meals is quickly becoming the norm. Here's an article about a brawl that erupted over someone eating spaghetti on a subway in New York. I’ve watched a man eat an entire chicken and sleep at the same time. The chicken sat on his lap, a drumstick in his right hand, floating up towards his mouth. His eyes were closed and chicken grease infused drool dripped from his lower lip. The subway car lurched, he woke, took a bite from his drumstick and as the subway settled into its lullaby-like movement, his eyes closed, his chewing slowed to a stop and he was asleep again. Repeat.

I moved to another seat and found another man clipping his fingernails. Let me repeat that: He was clipping his fingernails. As in, using a clipper to trim and discard the unwanted nails in every direction. If there was a line, this must be it. I wondered if the man eating the entire chicken worried about flying fingernail clippings as a side dish for his meal. But he was asleep, so what would he care?

Waiting at a bus stop, I was reading a book, enjoying a bit of time to myself. Two gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, stopped at a red light. The gentleman in the passenger side rolled down his window and yelled in what I could safely say was a sarcastic tone, “I hope you're enjoying your book!” And they sped off laughing. Now, as an adult, I assumed the notion of furthering your intellect was welcomed. Maybe this was not something deemed 'cool' when in school, but I never thought I would get berated for reading in public. I guess it was too personal – how dare I read a book in public. I should be talking loud on my cell phone or eating a steak on the subway.

On my way to work, I pass through The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and sometimes use the public washroom. Often, even if all the urinals are vacant, the next person will use the one right next to me. We should have rules for public washrooms. Two friends entered and each took a stall. They continued their loud conversation while performing number two. I understand in our accelerated culture, there is a need to multi-task, but this is taking things one-step too far. And back to the mobile devices for a brief moment, is it necessary to talk on the phone while taking care of business?

I waited upstairs in a subway station in the little marked off area for the street performers. When the area is vacant, as it was at this moment, I like to stand as though I am a performer. I scowled at people when they ignored me and failed to throw some change in my imaginary guitar case. This was a big station, lots of room. A young teenaged couple stopped right beside me and started full on making out. At one point, they even bumped into me, pushing me out of the marked off area. A businesswoman was talking on her personal mobile device and wanted to finish a conversation before entering the subway. That conversation happened to be finishing while standing right in front of me. An old man was also waiting for someone and he decided to do so right beside me. He kept trying to catch my eye.

There I was, insulated by a teenaged couple sucking face, a loud woman talking on her cell phone and an old man who, at any moment, was going to start talking to me. I wanted to stick my arms out and turn in a circle, using my arms like helicopter blades. My personal space in this public place was infringed upon by others inserting their unwanted lives into my own.

I should probably move out to the country where there is lots of space. But what would be the fun in that? Perhaps a person can have too much space.