Euphoric, Narcotic, Pleasantly Hallucinant
“Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.”
– a description of the drug Soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
For trips to San Francisco, I use the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system when possible. While there are plenty of annoying and bothersome aspects to this, on balance, it’s generally the best approach for me these days. Years ago, it was a shining example of California’s leadership in creating a great place to live – it was a true engineering and construction feat that connected a good part of the Bay Area. The original planning goes as far back as 1947, but given the magnitude of the project itself and the politics involved, construction did not begin until 1964. Lyndon Johnson traveled to California for the groundbreaking, helping to celebrate the start of what was then the single largest public works undertaken by a local community. Some counties opted out. For instance, Santa Clara voters said that they preferred building freeways over mass transit – how’s that working out for you down there?
I felt like I was living in the space age the first time I rode BART. My very generous and dear hosts for my first San Francisco visit from Chicago all those years ago, pointed me in the right direction and gave me a primer. I was not only told about the right line to catch, but how to board the train. There were escalators to enter the subway, machines (kiosks as we now know them) to use for a ticket purchase and a gate that would open with the ticket. And there would be no conductors on the train. It all sounded like a scene from a science fiction movie.
Of course, none of this is a big deal these days – that’s the way things work everywhere. But this was all very new then and it was not the way things were back in Chicago. Train tickets there were purchased from a person sitting behind a barrier of bars or glass in the station or the train conductor, who would punch the ticket and insist that you leave it in plain sight in a designated spot on the back of the seat to show that you had paid the fare. A few years later, my good friend over at Faith and Magic visited me in San Francisco from New York City and also marveled at the system. The trains were clean and he was fascinated by the courtesy of people lining up in single file on the platforms as they waited for the trains to pull into the station. It was indeed quite nice.
Yes, my first BART trip was like living in the future. More than that, it was almost like a theme park ride, since it included four-miles in a tube on the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. The ride was so smooth and comfortable. I exited in Berkeley and experienced the carnival that it was back then. I had never seen anything like that before either.
As those of you who have been on BART anytime the past decade know, it’s all different now. When running, the trains are generally reliable and you can count on them to show up at the scheduled time and get you to your destination. But after that, it’s pretty dreadful. The trains are dirty, the parking lots are not even close to adequate, riders’ manners are lacking, loathsome even, and it’s a pretty crummy experience all around. With many of the seats dirtier than a park bench, I prefer to stand. But for those less concerned about this, good luck. Unless you board at one of the stations at the end of the line, there won’t likely be a seat available during the peak hours. And then there are the labor strikes. Periodically, riders are also subjected to the uncertainty caused by the threat of a BART employees’ strike. That’s the status today. As the sixty-day cooling off period ordered by Governor Jerry Brown in August has now expired without a resolution, thousands of people are wondering if the system will be open for business for tomorrow morning’s commute. I have my own ideas about how the system and the whole experience could be changed. Elect me King BART and I’ll get it fixed. It will be back to the future.
Another big difference between now and then is what we do on the train. The newspaper stands in the stations are mostly gone. The few that remain are trimmed way back and are pretty lonely spots. It used to be, we’d pick up the morning paper on the way in and the afternoon paper on the way out. But the dailies aren’t worth reading anymore and who needs them anyway, now that we’re all armed with cell phones and tablets? On BART, as in most other places, people stare into their cell phones and tablets. A good number of them also wear ear buds or some other audio device. Perhaps due to the concentration of people on the crowded trains, I am always left with a strong impression of the image of everyone fully absorbed in their little world of their electronic devices. Me too, sometimes. After a long day of work, I enjoy checking out the baseball box scores or finding some other temporary distraction to unwind.
I swear, we’ve become slaves to these things. I’ve seen all sorts of people oblivious to things going on around them on the train, even commotion, because they were so preoccupied. Two BART trains could collide with one another and would lie there mangled on the tracks with injuries all around and riders would still be glued to their phones.
Last year, Time Magazine performed a survey of five thousand people in the U.S. and seven other countries. Here are some of their findings:
- Eighty-four percent of the survey’s participants said that they could not go a single day without their cellphones;
- Seventy-five percent of 25-29 year olds, sleep with their phone;
- Twice as many people would choose time with their phone over eating lunch if faced with that choice; and
- Twenty percent checked their phone every ten minutes.
There’s a word for this obsession – nomophobia. (“Nomo” is a contraction of the words “no” and “mobile”.) People experience anxiety when they are without their phones.
Concerns are increasing about the importance that we place on smartphones in our daily lives. Bravo to Tame Yourself, a new blog that sets out to tame “phone users one blog post at a time”. In South Korea, where seventy percent of the population (and eighty percent of 12-19 year-olds) own a smartphone, researchers have developed a Smartphone Addiction Scale. Many educators are worried. They believe that such intensive use may actually be harming their students’ development and education. Some have gone so far as to warn that those who forgo their studies for time with the phones will be “losers”. Even the government is involved. The schools are now required to organize a boot camp to wean the children from their cell phones.
It seems we’ve hit a new marker, however. Recently, when I saw a headline on one of the news compilation websites about a murder on a San Francisco train, I thought that it must have been a spoof. It went something like this, “Smartphone Users on SF Train Didn’t Notice Gun Used to Kill Student.” And then I saw it the next day on Reuters and knew that this was real. Sure enough, last month, a twenty-year-old sophomore at San Francisco State University was murdered as he left a SF Muni light-rail train near the school. The San Francisco Police believe that the victim had no relationship with the killer. The surveillance tape shows another passenger waiving a gun while on the train and others completely unaware of the impending danger, because they were consumed by the smartphones. A young man’s life was literally lost, while others played out their own with their shiny little phones. Hypnotized and rendered useless when someone needed their help.