I was the only one who saw her.
I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.
I muttered the fuck is wrong with you under my breath and turned to watch her go. I can’t get lunch anywhere near my office without elbowing and fist-fighting my way through ravenous, pinstripe-suited crowds, so I was confident Rollergirl would crash into a tech-bro or a delivery guy before long. But she kept on rolling, her path unimpeded.
It was easy to chalk her safety up to the old saw that god takes care of drunks and fools. What shocked me more than this girl’s total disregard for the safety of herself and other was this: I was the only one who saw her. Literally every other person on the sidewalk had their heads trained on their phones.
I often rail on Twitter dot com about the growing trend of people traversing city streets while their eyes are diverted by a phone, a crime of which drivers, bikers, and pedestrians are guilty in equal measure. An entire city not paying attention to where it’s going raises some obvious safety concerns. I am baffled that when I arrive for work each morning that I don’t see the streets of Manhattan littered with corpses still clutching their phones in their dead, gnarled hands. However, another idea has gripped me lately that I find just as terrifying: What happens to a people who have lost the power to observe?
I’ve always believed that observing the world around you was how Art was made. You keep your eyes and ears open, you watch how people walk and listen to how they talk. These sensations trigger memories and ideas you wouldn’t have been able to find on your own. Then you take those memories and ideas and go make stuff.
The function of Art is to take something from your own head, translate it into some non-head medium, and make a connection with other people’s heads. I think it’s impossible to do that unless you have a sense of a world outside your own head. And you won’t have that sense unless you allow yourself some time to observe.
But observation can only take place when you’re freeing your head to take in whatever appears in front of it. Observation is not possible for people who are in a constant state of entertainment, which is what the iPhone culture has given us. People chase away boredom at the first millisecond it rears its head, be it waiting on line at a deli or a brief lull in conversation with friends at a bar or walking down the street cheek by jowl with eight million other humans.
One could argue that constant engagement with social media like Twitter is a form of observation, but it’s not nearly the same thing. All social media permit you to include certain people in your circles and, implicitly, exclude others. You can easily move past things you find depressing or insulting or just plain boring. Social media will never make you do anything you don’t want to do or be around anyone you think you won’t like.*
* Not to ignore the very real and troubling phenomenon of sociopaths (dudes, mostly) harassing anyone on social media with an opinion they can’t stomach (women, mostly).
That sounds amazing, as long as you never want to understand the things and people you don’t like, and as long as you’re okay with the kind of Art this world produces. Like social media itself, Art produced in the Social Media age is produced with the idea of giving people 100% of what they want and nothing of what they don’t. That’s why it is restricted almost entirely to reimagining previously produced Art (comic books, mostly), which leaves little surprises in either the creation or enjoyment of the Art. I know exactly how Batman/Superman/Wolverine is supposed to behave in this situation. It’s also why this new art leans heavily toward the consumer-first world of Nerd Culture: because unlike the old, thorny world of market research, test screenings, etc., nerds will say exactly what they want to see in a movie/TV show/book, and they will say it again and again and again, and they fully expect to receive it.
So in this age, the Art must hew to all the conventions and expectations carried by the original thing it is based on. The Art itself is not as important as the reactions the consumer constructs from it: namely, recaps, gifs, and memes. If a creator of Art fails to make more Art exactly when, why, or how the consumer wants it, s/he is denounced in terms usually reserved for war criminals (see: George Lucas, George R.R. Martin).
It all works perfectly, in the sense that people get what they want all the time, especially Hollywood execs (thanks, nerds!). All of this is fine, as long as that’s what you want: Art That Works.™
The counter to all my Man Shakes Fist At Cloud is that in the 21st century and beyond, perhaps there is no real distinction between the “real” world in which observation can take place and the online world. If the definition of “the real world” is the place where people spend their lives and people spend most of their lives online, then logically the real world is the online world. As I’ve written elsewhere, we now record our lives via social media, put pictures and memories out there for people to share. In a world where we preserve everything we do obsessively, maybe observation itself is an outdated concept.
Maybe all of these developments bug me because my chosen form of Art is writing, which is an extremely abstract form of Art. You have your own thoughts that you try to squeeze into individual boxes and arrange them like puzzle pieces into a shape that tells people what you’re thinking. It allows for subtlety and shades of meaning. It also allows for gross misinterpretation. It is also, in the year 2016, extremely tedious and does not have the immediate impact of other Art.
Writing made sense when it was invented about 5000 years ago. People are gonna wanna know about the stuff we did and we’re not gonna be around forever, so let’s chip some birds and hands into a rock. But we’ve had photographs for close to 200 years now, moving pictures for over 100. Now we can share all those things instantaneously across the globe. Does observing something, interpreting it, and writing down that interpretation make any sense in the world of Instagram?
A few days ago I saw a post about a new iOS keyboard that included gif keys. My immediate reaction was dismissive. But the more I considered it, the more I thought that gifs were quite effective tools for communication. They are blunt and leave little room for misunderstanding. Maybe gifs aren’t inferior forms of Art after all. Maybe I just want them to be because I’ve spent my life doing something that’s so much more complicated.
If I had a phone on me that afternoon on Third Avenue, I could have taken a video of Rollergirl and posted it for the world to see. You wouldn’t have to filter my words through your brain to get a picture of the scene, because you would have the actual scene. You would literally see it with your own eyes. You might share my frustration with entitled jerks who look at the city as one big party thrown just for them. You’d share and comment and move on. I don’t think that would count as observing your world but I’m not sure what does anymore.