by Samir Chopra
One fine morning, as I walked along a Brooklyn sidewalk to my gym, heading for my 8AM workout, I saw a young woman walking straight at me, her face turned away, attending to some matter of interest. She might have been paying attention to a smartphone, but it might have been kids or pets; the precise details of this encounter have slipped my mind. Unwilling to be run over, clothes-lined, or head-butted by this rapidly approaching freight train, one insensible to my presence, I nimbly stepped aside, infuriated that yet again, on a New York sidewalk, I had been subjected to the tyranny of the inattentive pedestrian.
At that moment of induced irritation, my thoughts were not inchoate, not just an incoherent mess of unresolved frustration; instead, they seemed to arrange themselves into a sentence-long expression of aggravation immediately comprehensible to some imaginary intended audience: “My least favorite pedestrian is the kind that walks in one direction with his attention diverted elsewhere, whether it’s smartphones, kids, or pets.” Or perhaps, “That’s quite all right; you should barge ahead on this sidewalk, your head down, unseeing and uncaring.” This reaction was instinctive; I did not stop to deliberate and compose my verbal reaction in sentence form; my brain responded like a trained machine, a well-primed one; a species of Pavlovian instinctive reaction had taken over my mind. It was not the first time that I had, on encountering something entirely weekday or quotidian, and yet, not unworthy of a mental response, suffered a brief emotional tic and found myself formulating such a summation of my feelings at that instant. The verbal expression of my thoughts did not suggest it was the starting point of a letter to a newspaper or an essay; it had to be concise and succinct.
This was not your garden-variety introspection; it was clearly intended for future public consumption, for a pithy display of my thoughts about a matter of personal interest to those who might be interested. I sensed my audience would be sympathetic; some would chime in with empathetic responses; yet others would add embellishments in their comments and annotations. I did not think this sentiment of mine would be greeted with disapproval; I anticipated approval. Indeed, that is why I indulged in that little bout of composition and drafting in my mind, framing the written expression of my thought to make it appropriately irate or ironic. Maybe the ensuing conversation would feature some cantankerous rants about the smartphone generation, about over-indulgent parents and pet-owners, all too busy texting, fretting over children and dogs and cats; perhaps some of my interlocutors would add witty tales of how, one day, in a urban encounter for the ages, they had stopped one of these offenders, and told them off with an artful blend of the scornful and witty. Perhaps someone would add a ‘horror story’ about how coffee had been spilled on them by someone just like the young woman; and more outrage would ensue. A little chat corner would have developed.
I had been drafting a Facebook status, a tweet.
The folks at Facebook and Twitter have achieved something remarkable: they have made their users regard the world as staging ground for inputs to their products. The world and its events and relations are, so to speak, so much raw material to be submitted to the formulation and framing of Facebook statuses and tweets. The world is not the world tout court, it is the provisioner of ‘content’ for our social media reports.