Our Technology Contains Us

For the last year I have lived in Goyang, on the western edge of the greater Seoul metropolitan area. It takes me about an hour to get home by bus from where I work in the center of the city. The bus I ride is comfortable and reliable and clean, but what is most remarkable is how quiet it invariably stays. 

I can make the hour-long ride with all 40-some seats filled and people standing in the aisles and not hear one person speak. If I had to guess I would say 15-percent of passengers sleep, maybe 2-percent read a newspaper or a book, and the rest are on their phones.

The older generation uses headphones less—every 30 something or younger is plugged in. Some watch baseball games or music videos or movies. Others read e-books and e-comic books or check Facebook and Cyworld. Most text using KakaoTalk, the free messaging app. As we take tunnels through mountains and bridges over rivers, the other passengers are silently sending out hundreds, if not thousands, of messages into the ether, rarely bothering to look out the window.

It’s a peaceful commute. I read, write, answer email, study Korean and use Kakao just like everyone else. We’re quiet and still; the technology contains us. It helps us to be comfortable among strangers who have their own problems—people who might have had difficult days at work or with families, are occasionally drunk, especially after 10 or 11, all in close proximity to each other.

There is a general public respect in this culture that accounts for this orderly behavior. Part of that comes from the ingrained regard for our fellow man, particularly our elders. I wanted to know if the technology here was causing this controlled, polite environment or if it had always been like this. I asked a Korean friend of mine who works in media and whose intellect I trust. He said:

Koreans tend to respect others, especially the elderly, in public places, and in my childhood, some elderly people scolded youngsters (total strangers!) on the streets and the young people usually followed such advice, since it’s really bad to confront the elderly.

New tech devices are not the decisive factor. In the past, it was newspapers and books. I think reading books, newspapers, magazines on the bus is a great way to spend time and to keep certain distance with strangers, particularly concerning with where your eyes should be directed at. Now, smartphones and tablets have replaced newspapers and books, but the role remains the same.

Koreans tend to not talk to strangers on public transportation. Exception: when you want to help out pregnant women or women with babies or the elderly, you may talk to them. And some elderly people make comments when they sit next to such people.

This might help explain why so many people here have smartphones. With a significant amount of the population using public transportation, and a cultural custom to mind your own business in public, we need something to focus on.

Could the West ever adopt a similar custom? We’ll probably never have the same kind of respect for the elderly or people in need, so that’s not going to be a factor in how we act in public, but our love for technology and the unpredictable nature of strangers is forcing us inward.

Commuting via public transportation in a major American city can be unpredictable and interesting, or it can be uncomfortable and irritating, depending on your mood and if you let the mentally unstable and drug addled get to you. Headphones are often the best way to control either the beginning or end of your workday.

The days of striking up an enjoyable conversation with your seatmate are on their way out. It takes nerve to talk to someone you might find interesting or attractive on a bus or a train. To ask someone to unplug so you can begin a conservation is beyond even the most confident of us. How many books and movies use strangers meeting on public transportation as a major plot device? It’s becoming less and less believable.

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