Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Yo Buddy ... My World-Famous Architectural Landmarks Are Up Here.

Never once in the history of me has there been a time when I could be described as "trendy".

Which is not to say I don't have a youthful outlook on things. I've always had an intense sense of curiosity and a capacity to become interested and engaged on just about any topic.

But I have also always been slightly out of sync with the bow wave of pop culture. "Trendy" just isn't in my DNA.

So, despite the ever-growing heap of old birthday cards ... despite the fact that the salt has now thoroughly beaten the pepper (by many laps) in the race to claim my beard ... and despite the fact that I'm hopelessly unaware of whatever Internet, music, fashion, tech or reality TV fad is currently burning through pop culture like a rampaging pandemic ... I've never really felt particularly old.

Until now.

A few nights ago, as I was leaving the office, I met a young couple on the street that made me feel like Methuselah's great-goddamn-grandfather.


Well, perhaps met is a bit of an overstatement.

Encountered? No, that's not right ...

I've got it ...

Was stared blankly at by.

Yeah, that's more like it.

They were a young couple. Early twenties. Mid-western by the accent. Clearly in New York for the first time. And clearly completely lost.

Now, there are two primary reasons why I don't normally offer aid to wayward tourists in NYC.

Firstly, because I'm god-effing-awful with directions. Seriously ... after working in this city for almost 15 years, I routinely get lost in New York. A city where the streets are numbered sequentially. It's like I have a reverse GPS chip in my head that causes me to always make the wrong navigational decision.

So I try to avoid giving directions because I don't want to be responsible for sending some poor unsuspecting innocent into the waiting arms of shiftless ne'er-do-wells or murderous street hooligans. (Which New York totally has, by the way. Around any given corner the opening scene from Gangs of New York is about to break out, complete with airborne viscera and fancy Dr. Seussian top hats. That's just Science.)

And the second reason I never give directions is ... well ... I'm kind of an asshole who doesn't want to be bothered.

Yeah, I know what the title of this blog is. What do you want? I'm a work in progress.

"Howzabout you take a left at Suck It Street and Fuck Off Avenue."

Anyhow, for whatever reason, I was in an uncharacteristically good mood. And as I left the office, I happened upon some folks who seemed to need a hand.

"It's the Empire State Building ..."

"I know ..."

"It's back the other way ..."

"No, that's Seventh ..."

"Google says it's over that way ..."

"Well, Apple says it's this way ..."

"The Empire State Building ..."

"I know ..."

But the striking thing about their "conversation" is that it took place entirely without them ever breaking eye contact with the phones they were so fixedly hunched over. They never once raised their heads to look at their surroundings, to make eye contact with one another, or even to make sure they weren't about to be pasted all over 6th Avenue by an errant cab.

They were communicating without actually interacting.

But I pushed on. I was in such a good mood that by GOD I was gonna break my rule about direction-giving help these kids out! Hell or high water!

Why? Because my office is at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue -- across the street from Bryant Park, a hundred yards from the NY Public Library, and about a block from Times Square -- pretty much smack in the middle of mid-town. Meaning, no matter how shitty my sense of direction, this was something I could help them with.

Because you could totally SEE the the Empire State Building from where we were standing.

"Excuse me," I offered with a smile. "Are you guys looking for the Empire State Building?"

If ever there was a perfect time for the cartoon sound effect of the record-needle-scratching-to-a-halt, this was it.

They snapped up from their phones in unison and fixed me with a matching pair of blank, confused stares.

And then they just blinked at me.

Silent, uncomprehending.

The way cows might stare at a passing train.

For what felt like a full minute.



"The Empire State Building?" I offered again, with slightly less confidence than before. "It's right over there."

They turned in unison and looked at it.

Giant, unmissable.

Then back at me.

Then at the building again.

Then back at me.



"The Empire State ... it's right ... over ... "




Hollow. Uncomprehending.

"... right ... over ..."

And then, without a hint of acknowledgment, they snapped back to their phones and resumed their argument all over again.

"It's back the other way ..."

"No, that's Seventh ..."

"Google says it's over that way ..."

"Well, Apple says it's this way ..."

"The Empire State Building ..."

"I know ..."

And then it was my turn to stare uncomprehendingly.

Were we done?!

Was I dismissed?!

What the shit just happened!?

Hang on ... maybe it was worse than that ...

Jesus, maybe I didn't exist at all?!

Maybe I never did!!

Maybe I died and just didn't know it!!

Was I a ghost!?



Early testing trending toward: No.

And that's when it struck me ... there may be an entire generation, possibly two, that I simply do not have the tools or the language to communicate with. Sure, this particular pair of kids may have been an extreme example, but the chasm is real. It exists.

Not to get too serious, but as amusing as this encounter was, I honestly came away from it a little shaken.

It wasn't a question of me not being trendy enough. I've encountered many, many situations where I've had to deal with those hipper or more in-the-know than I. Hell, that's a constant state of being for me.

No, this was different. This was bigger. Deeper.

It seems to me there's been a profound and fundamental shift in the last 20 years in the process of human communication. And that shift, disturbingly, seems to be occurring at a primal ... maybe even at a biological level.

The introduction of smart phone communication has changed us as a species in ways I don't think we're even aware of yet. I fear we may only be seeing the very first ripples on that pond.

This goes far beyond any generation gap. This isn't like the introduction of the telephone, the television or even the early Internet. Those things were extensions of meaningful in-person, one-on-one interaction.

But this replaces that interaction entirely. And that can't be good.

Sure, it may not seem like a big deal that cursive writing is no longer being taught in grade school. Or that smart phones and tablets are replacing books and pencils in classrooms across the land. But as more and more glowing screens are being enthusiastically thrust in front of younger and younger eyes, I can't help fearing that the substitution of the digital and virtual for the tangible and human might already be having erosive effects.

"No one can be told what the Matrix is. It has to be texted. With emojis."

Does that make me a hypocrite? Yeah, probably. Sure, I dip a toe into the great, sprawling miasma of the on-line world. I tend this blog on occasion, tweet with some regularity, and basically spend all day at work thumbing through the wonders of the World Wide Web.

But because I was born in a time before computers, I was introduced to these electronic toys after I had already learned to engage with other humans in the old-fashioned meat-based world. I'd already been schooled in the traditional social techniques that the great primates have been using since shortly after we flapped up out of the primordial soup and onto the beach.

I fear for the millions born inside the Matrix. The millions who don't seem to have been given that tactile social grounding. They're coming of age in a time when making eye contact, reading body language and just knowing how to behave in a social setting just aren't being valued the way they used to be.

I'm not the old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. I'm the old man who's afraid the kids aren't even aware that they're standing on a lawn at all.

Or worse ... that they're unaware they're standing on a corner in mid-town Manhattan ... in the shadow of the very building they've come to take a selfie in front of so they can Instagram it to thousands of "friends" they've never actually met.

Till next we meet ...