I catch the train to work. Not the underground, but the over-ground. My American friends might call it “mass-transit”, which to a British ear sounds much cooler, has a touch of the ‘Sci-Fi’ even, as if my journey from house to train station might also involve a jet-pack, because maybe that’s how mass-transit travellers roll. Like Boba Fett.
Only, swap ‘mass transit’ for ‘public transport’ or ‘British Rail’, and it feels like the jet pack ought to also be swapped for a Penny Farthing.
Connotations can be funny things.
What I like about travelling by morning train, beyond the fact it doesn’t involve cycling, is how I’m awake to what everyone else in the carriage is up to. Of course, what they’re doing is what I’m doing. They’re waking up to their new day, privately getting on with their own private journeys through space and time, going where they need to go to do the jobs and be the people they need to be. They’re in their private-public spaces, private lives and thoughts, travelling together in complicit and understood near-silence.
And this near-silence is happily aided by our many devices; everyone on their phones or laptops, tablets or kindles, the majority with their heads in a screen; distracted; engrossed; consumed and consuming.
A bit like joining dots, I like to take in the train carriage wide-angle, join the screens, look for patterns. And the main pattern is that almost everyone has a screen. Sure, some are reading books or magazines, ones actually printed on paper, but mainly its lots of screens, quickly underlining to any amnesiac time-traveller with a random penchant for commuting that no one did actually cycle to the station by Penny Farthing.
And the second pattern I keep noticing is how my fellow commuters are treating their many screen-devices.
It’s. So. Lovingly.
As children, we were always told to look after our toys. As a parent I tell my children, “Look after your toys!” The conditioning is long-standing, and while not being trashy grown-ups who trash their things is a point of easy approval... I think it runs deeper.
In the ‘present tense’ sense, technology by definition is obsolete. My first digital camera, a 41 (count em!) megapixel Canon encased in pleasing silver, remains a cherished 30th birthday gift... but was never going to become an heirloom. Nokia’slatest Lumia 1020 phone boasts a 41 megapixels camera.
We accept that our tech comes with a built-in kind of expiration, where it’s so swiftly superseded by the next ‘new whizzy thing’ as out next quarter, but in spite of knowing this, I still note the way people so tenderly put away their iPads as we pull into the station. They delicately re-drape squares of cloth across the screen. They close the lids on their liquid-metal iBooks with a proud twitch of a smile and a gentle click, returning them to padded felt-lined cases suitable for transporting Faberge eggs.
A lot of it is Apple’s fault. It’s Apples fault for creating desirable objects that we covet and feel so compelled to caress. A year or so ago, I watched a presentation given by UK Adland planner, Russell Davies. He spoke of once grafting a chalk board ‘sheet’ to the lid of his iBook, so he could add a few Old Skool, low-fi chalk scrawls. Rather pleased with his new aesthetic, he posted a picture of his re-styled lap-top online, and was left bewildered, maybe even a little bruised, by the barrage of indignant outcry; how such defacing would nullify the guarantee, and just what the hell was he thinking?!
The last time I flew to Berlin, not long ago, it was just for the day, and it was to look at televisions. It was on the invitation of a client, who makes televisions. Being asked to get on a plane to look at devices that encourage a sedentary lifestyle was a gentle irony I figured it was easier to simply let slide. The event was IFA, not a mass gathering of independent financial advisors, but a big-tech love-in, billed “the world‘s leading trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances”.
IFA was a fun-enough day out, but the tech-fest extravaganza, on appearance attended by many like a pilgrimage, did make we wonder just how much we do and should revere and wonder at our many mass-market devices? The Samsung Hall, in particular, with its waterfall of sheet-glass screens, obsidian black, looking like you could use them to take over the world’s airspace and hold governments to ransom, was both stunning, and bordered on being almost too divine.
No question, technology is getting prettier and prettier, but it will always be the product of a conveyor belt. Going bug-eyed, and “OOO”-ing like the chubby green aliens in Toy Storyis, I think, a questionably reverential and sloppy reaction to being shown any electronic device. Even an orgasm-o-tron.
I wonder whether we can learn something from the Bauhaus bounty hunter Boba Fett, his get-up and tech was so full of dents because his form was born of function?
I’ll keep looking for new patterns as I ride my train to work, but I suspect the ‘screen-dots’ will continue to build a picture-repeat. Until Apple start ‘thinking ugly’ and Samsung stop making TVs with installation art in mind, it’ll be a picture of ‘Screen-Devotion’ and ‘Tech-Tenderness’.
If only mass-transit could be a thing of equal beauty.