A few anecdotes

by Rob Horning

11 September 2006


I just returned from lunch and witnessed a fashion shoot on Fifth Avenue. The model stiffened herself in the wind, looking like a bodybuilder in the impressive and palpable strain it required for her to hold her pose, her long legs like reeds that refused to bend in the breeze. She was like a strange statue that suddenly had been deposited in front of my office; she had a marble blankness of expression. The photographer was on one knee, pointing his camera up at her, to make her even more monumental. But tourists were staging guerilla shoots of their own, taking any number of snapshots of her from whatever angle was most convenient to them. Most of them wanted to get the photographer in their shot as well, to perhaps prove that they had manage to stumble behind the scenes. I wanted to wait around and see the model deobjectify herself, see her snap out of whatever it was she had done to herself. But it was taking too long, and I had to get back to work.

Yesterday, before seeing a truly dismal slog of a film, Sherrybaby—acting for the sake of acting, squalor and dysfunction as “realism”—we had burgers at a trendy burger joint tucked into the lobby of the Parker Meridien hotel on 57th Street. The line can go slow, and grew even slower when the Austrailian tourist in front of me, in the midst of ordering for her and her six friends, realized that she had forgot to mention some topping for one of the burgers and had to start over again, and again. Thus prompted the cashier to apparently stage an impromptu work slowdown. Some well-dressed media types were in line behind us, and one of them went to save a booth, a few feet away, for their group. Then, after a few moments, I see the woman waving her arms in the air to her friends in line. “Hey,” she says, “I’m calling you.” She was using her cell phone to call someone who was standing five feet away, someone so close that the sound of her voice was louder than phone’s ringtone. They proceeded to have a conversations on the phone, while making eye contact with each other. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. No wonder so many stadiums are named for telecom companies; they must have money to burn with customers like these. This seemed to prove that at some point gadgets begin to dictate your behavior over and above what may have once seemed like common sense. It’s not exactly path dependence, but something related, whereby one justifies some technology by finding the least useful, most ostentatious ways, and then gets trapped in these usage patterns. This may explain in part an otherwise puzzling (but rather cheering) item in The Economist about cell-phone use on flights. Americans hate the idea:

When America’s telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, requested public comments on in-flight calling, it received thousands of mostly negative responses. “Please no. No,” read one response. “I object to this in the strongest terms. I can’t believe you are even considering it.” America’s airlines seem to share this lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Both United and Delta say their customers do not want it.

But airlines may introduce it anyway, because people will use the service whether they really want it or not. Part of this apparent inconsistency would stem from egoism: There’s always a perfectly good reason to have to take a call oneself, but other people’s chattering is inexcusable. Part of it is probably an unwillingness to admit in a survey that one has given up on that basic standard of politeness: respecting the existence of the other people one shares space with. But some of it would derive from a compulsion to do something simply because one can. The article suggests that airlines may introduce the cell-phone service simply to have the chance to charge more for tickets in cabins that prohibited it. What a great idea—get a captive audience and subject them to nuisances that they must then pay to avoid. Why not have shrieking noise come standard with your airfare and invite preferred customers to pay more for silence? When cell phone users become nuisances, the best way to beat them seems to be to join them, so one talker would likely beget several dozen more. In that cacophony one will be able to hear the sounds of the social order tearing apart.

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