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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

iPods, Interaction, and Public Spaces

How often do you NOT use your iPod?!

..."NO! I missed my stop again!"

The subway ride back home tonight after having dinner in east village at Cafe Orlin (one of my favorite places that I highly recommend), was uneventful yet quite interesting. As usual (given the "people watcher" that I am by nature), I was entertaining myself by watching people, reading the look on their faces, and their activities. A few people were reading and a couple taking a nap on their way home from a hard day at work, while a young girl (in her mid-twenties, dressed up in her own style) walked in the subway with a very insecure look on her face and the impression of "just left a party". But what was more interesting was a lady listening to her iPod and quite disconnected from the outside world. It didn't take long that she realized she missed her stop and had to rush out of the subway at the next station.

When I was moving to NYC, I was told by a few people that the NYC subway is a great place for interaction and meeting new people. That sounded fascinating to me... However, all I have noticed so far on the subway rides is the typical western isolation. Yes, public spaces here in NYC are full of people and great places to potentially meet new people, but unfortunately the majority of the population these days isolate themselves by their iPods. I think this new desirable and entertaining technology (iPod) is dictating and affecting our communication system. When people enter a public space with an iPod in their ears they are making a statement. They are basically saying "please do not disturb me, I am not in the mood to talk to you or even smile and interact"...

This is something less noticeable in Denver -where I lived, for a few years. Especially when taking the BX bus to commute from downtown Denver to Boulder for school. Sometimes people would even get really loud and excited about the individual/group conversation they were having with each other. By comparing Los Angeles, Denver, and New York City to each other, I would definitely say Denver has the highest 'public' interaction; and maybe that's one of the reasons why Denver is a popular tourist and residence destination. In Denver it is very easy to connect to the environment, engage in public conversations, and make new friends. I actually meet one of my great friends in 2007 on my way to school from Denver to Boulder after he asked what language I was speaking on the phone earlier on the bus ride.

Not that people in NYC are disrespectful and not helpful, as I have always found some one to help with directions and questions when needed. But on the subway here, seems like people are not interested or secure enough to suddenly smile and start a conversation with the person next to them. Reading a book or listening to the iPod appears to be more convenient and 'trouble-less'. However, the environment also plays an important role in directing people to interact and communicate with each other.
I certainly do not find the subway stations here a very attractive place for interaction. I personally prefer to start a conversation with a stranger in a bar or Bryant park for example, rather than the underground subways. One of the very interesting features of public transportation in the Middle East is the 'shared/public' cabs. Other than the private car service they have (which is basically like the taxi cabs here), there are also public cabs which have a designated street/route and four different people can ride the cab at the same time. I remember Istanbul, Turkey have taxi vans as a public transportation mode that they call it "dolmoush".
The demand for these public cabs is high and sometimes finding a ride home could be a challenge, but the fare is cheaper and it also is a great way for 'public interaction' while riding from point A to point B. I heard that NYC has a temporarily plan for implementing this public-taxi system in the uptown area as a test.

This question has been occupying my mind for a while now: how can we enhance the underground subways in NYC with a limited budget to create a more attractive and interactive environment?
MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NY) has implemented a few innovative programs so far; like MUNY (Music Under NY) where local musicians perform live music and attract people in groups. Even though its been quite successful and interesting, it still does not fill-in the social gaps among people.

Is it worth the effort of enhancing the underground public space/life while people isolate themselves with their personal preferences?

1 comment:

  1. Q, from someone who has lived in NY most of her life and utilized the subway more years than I care to remember :), this was an interesting and fresh perspective. I never really thought of subways as a place to seek interaction... probably because of the historical safety issues we've had underground. While it has improved, pick pocketing, and worse still happens. Most NYers tend to view the subway as a quick and convenient way to get around - usually being in a rush to get to their destination. But any and all environmental improvements would be very welcome! Interestingly, on visits to the UK, I noticed their Underground culture is similar to the US's of keeping to oneself. Best of luck with the research. --Farinaz