Left to Our Own Devices

The man blocking the entrance to the subway so he can check his phone, and what to do about him.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

An affliction has come to the streets of America. Men of good health stoop and squint on the sidewalk. The stride of people with purpose shortens to a shuffle. They halt as if an invisible hand is holding on to their belt loop. People of no obvious malady and with no premeditated scheme of malice stop at the top of escalators, the bottom of stairways, after passing through a bustling public exit, and always in just the spot where they can most effectively clog a crowded street, causing mayhem. 

The only commonality I can find among these people is that they hold before them a device into which they look with desperate interest. They poke at it. They swipe. I think they are looking for a loved one in there. Or perhaps they are looking for a song to touch the heart. The prize must be great to endure the pain it seems to visit on them—the narrowing of the eyes, slackening of the lips, the deadening of ambulation. Sometimes I see joy: They laugh into it, or their face takes on a glow. Either way, they earn the consternation of their fellow man. 

When people witness this behavior, it incites rage. They see it as the creep of narcissism wrapping around us like kudzu. We have become so consumed with ourselves that we cannot walk more than a handful of paces without tending to the overwhelmingly self-centered activities encased in those little devices—the Facebook posts, the Super Important Email, the search for the emoji juste. We forget that we’re annoying the rest of mankind because we don’t give a damn about mankind. We will clear the way as soon as we get this Instagram post up. We have gone from holding the door out of courtesy to standing before it out of obliviousness, like a pillar of salt. An alien would think we were a nation constantly bowing our heads in prayer.

I’m not annoyed so much as I am worried. What about open manholes, low-hanging beams, and cars that might suddenly accelerate? These are just some of the dangers that lay in wait for people anesthetized by their little screens. I worry about the mother of two we might lose to a steam vent. Or the highlight-watching sports fan who might disappear in an alley for days. Just this week, a girl got her leg caught in a metal grate, which she hadn’t noticed because she was texting. But perhaps my greatest fear is that someone rushing to a meeting or to make a dinner reservation will do harm to the breathing obstacle standing before them, high on Twitter notifications. Between the accidents and the possible confrontations, people might be wise to wear bike helmets before they go out the door. 

Another option is that we might form a neighborhood watch. We could all get uniforms, or wear special hats. Intervention need not be overly intrusive. A gentle hand to the chin, to lift a person’s eyes up to the horizon. Not only will this keep him from suffering career-ending injuries, but it will return him to the flow of human activity. The rest of us will go about our way unimpeded while the device-holders enjoy a re-introduction to trees and birds and art and architecture and the smiling faces of other members of mankind. If anyone else is looking up to smile back at them, that is.