The other day I was riding on a newly designed CTA train, the kind where we’re all facing each other. Two seats away from me was a young man having an extremely loud and grating cell phone conversation as I attempted to read the New York Times on my phone. Should I say something, should I not say something? I finally gave up trying to concentrate on reading and looked around me — nearly everyone on the train was scrolling on a phone.
The sight of all this scrolling combined with the intrusive sound of the cell phone conversation, made me feel like I was in some Brave New World where we had all given up critical thought in favor of constant reliance on our screens. We arrived at a newly renovated station and a large monitor with rolling ads seemed to confirm this paranoia. I remembered how before the onslaught of cell phones I used to relish a quiet train ride where I could just stare out the window and let my mind wander. Watching my fellow passengers burrow into their scrolling, I put my own phone in my bag and attempted to zone out and dig deeper into my brain.
As technology takes over our lives it becomes harder to find pockets of silence in our daily transportation. Taxis are now equipped with televisions; small screens greet us at the gas pump and render accessing one’s own thoughts for five minutes nearly impossible. Parents often plug their kids into DVDs or ipads on long-distance car rides; walks and bike rides are taken while plugged into headsets and many of us are constantly “on-call” checking texts, emails and social media sites relentlessly. I still can’t get used to strangers walking down the street holding “hands-free” conversations with ear pieces tucked behind their hair. Is that a crazy person? Possibly, but she’s not talking to the voices in her head, she’s on the phone.
I’m not anti-technology. I’m in love with my smart phone as much as the next guy or gal. But I do value the ability to be silent. We need to check in with our own thoughts and in our increasingly hectic lives a walk to the store, a car ride out of town or a train ride to work are often great opportunities to turn the volume down, space out and let our imaginations fly.
The arts can be a terrific refuge from the pressures and stresses of reality. But in order to create art, to access our imaginations and to be creative beings, we need to turn the volume off and be comfortable with doing nothing.