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Technology: The Ringing Could Soon Be Everywhere

I was on the subway with one of my louder friends the other day when he said something particularly embarrassing. Red-faced I shushed him vigorously and looked furtively around to see how many people were chuckling. Talk about anticlimactic. Nobody. Every single one of our surrounding co-passengers who sat within earshot had headphones planted firmly in their ears, seemingly content to just sit back and let the music keep them company. I was amazed.

I was on the subway with one of my louder friends the other day when he said something particularly embarrassing. Red-faced I shushed him vigorously and looked furtively around to see how many people were chuckling. Talk about anticlimactic. Nobody.

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Every single one of our surrounding co-passengers who sat within earshot had headphones planted firmly in their ears, seemingly content to just sit back and let the music keep them company. I was amazed.

It’s not really a new phenomenon that many people who ride New York’s subway carry iPods or other MP3 players. I just had never had an occasion to notice how large this number actually is. People keep inter-personal interaction to a minimum– no looking, no talking, no touching (well not of one’s own volition anyway). The music is just another way to keep the invisible walls impenetrable.

Listening to music on the subway isn’t a bad thing at all – before it seems like I’m heading down that path — but last week’s incident (or lack of) has made me think about how public transport systems are increasingly being populated by more and more gadget wielders.

A recent piece of tech news: In the near future, possibly even next year, people may be able to freely use their cell phones on airplanes flying over EU airspace. Plans have already been developed to allow mobile phone usage above 3000 meters, without the risk of interference with the aircraft navigation systems.

Less newsworthy is the fact that New Yorkers will soon be able to use their cell phones underground. The Metropolitan Transport Authority recently announced a plan by which all 277 subway stations would be wired for cell phone and wireless Internet connectivity over the next six years. Reportedly, Transit Wireless, the company that will be installing the equipment, will also provide the MTA with the potential to extend the cell phone and wireless capabilities to subway tunnels. So far, the MTA has indicated no intention of doing so. Some seem to think they should.

Now I love using my phone; I love chatting with people. And particularly when I’m suspended in a tubular vacuum, staring blankly at the Delta ad in front of me and trying to decrypt the garbled sounds from above that are meant to keep everyone informed, the prospect of having a familiar voice just a button away to help pass the time sounds pretty appealing. The problem? It sounds pretty appealing to just about everyone.

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Technology itself — if intended for humane purposes, to facilitate interaction, solve a problem or make life easier — can be wonderful. Problems arise around the way in which people choose to harness this technology. Sometimes, depending on the type of device and the way people choose to use it, too much technology can be a bad thing.

We already use cell phones in trains and on buses; so far with the help of guilt inducing announcements about being courteous or under the glares of their tired co-passengers, people have managed to stay pretty quiet.

But flights across Europe? Hour long subway rides from Queens to Brooklyn? The former is less daunting – people are more courteous on flights, and if nothing else, the higher prices of cell phone calls will act as a deterrent. But the latter? Sounds like a capsule shaped nightmare to me.

On the bright side, the less invasive usage of cell phones mid-air is far more likely to materialize in the near future than the ability to use phones in subway tunnels. The MTA seems to share the idea that cell phone usage on subways is a bad idea.

To be fair, like with most technology, as long as the usage of cell phones on subways, planes and other modes of public transport can be monitored or restricted, it could be a positive thing – particularly in emergency situations when riders are trapped underground. But for now, confining the extension of underground cell phone signals to subway stations is fine by me. It’s the one part of my day when, away from my cell phone and the phones of others, I get to catch up on reading, listen to music or just snatch some “me” time during which no verbal responses are expected.