Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Of Rolling and Scrolling



There's been a new surge of talk these days about smartphone zombie-ism. In part it's the Pokemon Go thing raising a new wave of concerns. But really that has just served as a catalyst to bring up the overall ubiquity of smartphone use as a form of escapism from the physical realities of the here and now. We've all seen those bored families out on forced "quality time" excursions, where each family member is so obviously elsewhere - virtually, at least, enjoying a rich private experience on their smart phone or tablet while sitting beside each other. Couples and friends inject interest into tired hangout routines by photographing and sharing their activities on social media. In airport terminals and medical offices, boredom is removed from long wait times. Whether it's a good thing or bad, the smartphone opens escape routes, placing entire other worlds at our fingertips, offering alternative stimuli to that which is physically in front of us.

I am not out and about in cities much these days. So it was a little jolting to walk along the Belfast waterfront this overcast Sunday morning. It seemed that nearly every passer-by held a phone in front of their face. Most did not appear to be playing the Pokemon game. They looked like they were walking while checking social media pages. Walking while reading emails. Walking while scrolling through endless image streams. Clearly this was done to cope with the slow and linear nature of walking from A to B. And on this particular day, I realised just how much I could relate to the urge.

I was between two appointments, one having taken place in the early morning. It was now 10am and I had hours to kill till the next one. This being Sunday, there'd be nothing open until 1 in the afternoon. Normally I'd rejoice and ride my bicycle along the extensive, idyllic network of paths that Belfast has to offer. (In fact, I cherish the opportunity to visit Belfast precisely because it's such a lovely place to explore by bike - highly underrated! A topic for another post.) But at the moment, for the first time in a long, long while, I am off the bike for medical reasons. And I mean completely off the bike; I can't even ride a very upright bicycle, very slowly. A week in, this predicament has me rather at a loss. And makes me realise how much - transportation needs aside - I use the bike as a sort of tool, or even crutch, to both cope with and shape my experience of physical reality.

The acts of pedaling and steering a bicycle create an enhanced, layered experience of moving through space. Moreover, the abilities to exercise selective attention and regulate speed, offer a degree of control (or, perceived control) that is addictive. On the bike, should I find my visual surroundings monotonous, or disliked the area I am in, I can simply speed up - "scrolling past" the bit I don't like, as it were.

Removing these layers and tactics from my movement through long stretches of landscape, in a way,  makes me feel as if I am a substance addict forced to face the world sober for the first time. My senses are used to a higher degree of stimulation, my field of vision to more rapid changes in scenery. The more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to this idea of scrolling. The comparison is flawed, of course, not least for the fact that cycling fosters physical activity whereas getting lost in our phones reduces it. Yet still in some ways, I am not so different from a kid who's had their smartphone taken away.

I remember from previous times off the bike, this withdrawal period. The finding of walking "boring" until the senses re-callibrate to the slower pace, to the slower-to-change scenery. Then there is also the social aspect of things that requires not so much a re-adjustment as a re-learning.

Take, for instance, the Two Lone Pedestrians dilemma. You are walking down a long empty street. And from the opposite direction, another person is walking as well, facing toward you. At a distance, you have already made eye contact, even half-nodded, half-smiled at one another, in acknowledgement. But it's still quite a while from that moment until your paths cross. So you are essentially staring at each other as you walk, not knowing where else to direct your gazes without it seeming as if you're intentionally avoiding staring, each increasingly self-conscious of being studied by the other. Those moments before you finally pass one another seem to stretch and grow increasingly uncomfortable ...But to quicken your gait would be to admit all this overtly, making the situation worse. Surely I am not the only one who experiences this?

Interestingly though, I only feel an awkwardness in these, and other pedestrian social situations, when I am undergoing cycling withdrawal. It is as if, having grown used to riding a bike for transport, I need to be re-introduced into pedestrian society slowly. My mannerisms are off; as is my intuitive situation-reading.

And in that sense, I suppose that being forced to live without cycling for a spell is not a bad thing. It's good to face reality now and again without any manner of filters, crutches, or enhancing substances - be they virtual or physical. Now where are those headphones again? I am off to walk down the road.



31 comments:

  1. Hope your medical issue is resolved soon! Meantime, enjoy pedestrian life as best you can. Wishing you all the best!

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  2. I won't address the smartphone aspect of this post b/c I don't own one but I do have thoughts about adding walking to my daily routine. For the last five or six years I've been riding my bike everywhere, everyday, and I love it but decided it has it's limits as far health, both mental and otherwise. While raising children we walked everywhere, first pushing them in a stroller, then walked with them to school, libraries, parks, everywhere…It was relaxing, simple and healthy. Bikes can take me distances but do not exercise all those wonderful tiny muscles.

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    1. I am on week 2 of walking now, 4-5 miles a day according to my phone. The experience is definitely improving over time. It's good to know that I can survive without the bike without going insane. And yes, those little muscles!

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  3. I also ride everywhere and I mean everywhere. I count on my bike for transport and to complete all those errands I can physically fit in while getting exercise. It's my compromise for speed and good health. When the winter comes and I am jolted back to walking for exercise my range shrinks drastically and it takes days to readjust to slow mobility. I almost feel claustrophobic. If I understand what you are describing, it's the reduced range that is shocking both mentally and physically and reconnecting as a pedestrian is an uncomfortable situation. Sadly, smartphones only increase this anxiety as it's too easy to not acknowledge a walker and escape into the digital world.

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  4. Escapism is not always a bad thing. I am fascinated by your description of Belfast as a lovely place to ride a bike, not exactly what I associate it with but this is a theme that comes up in your post about the city. Do tell more!

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    1. Having lived, and cycled in, quite a few cities, I have to say Belfast has one of the best networks of traffic-free cycling/walking paths I have even seen. It is very easy to get around the city, not only in the centre but also in some of the more obscure/peripheral parts. Not sure when all of this happened, as some of the paths look fairly new. But this class of infrastructure deserves some sort of award, or at least acknowledgement, and I am quite surprised that all I see are complaints.

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  5. What a great post. You are definitely not the only one to encounter the awkwardness of pedestrian encounters, and you've offered a perfect description of the experience. I never quite know where to put my eyes. The more crowded the street, the easier this is to avoid.

    I love the pace and range of the bike for transportation. I love how it lets me see my world more slowly and with greater intimacy than when I am in a car, but with greater speed and efficiency in completing a trip than on foot. But if I want to explore the fine-grained texture of a new place -- hiking a mesa or wandering through the dense downtown of a new city -- nothing beats walking, for me anyway.

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  6. I've noticed, increasingly, there are those who both roll and scroll. Now that's getting frustrating. Even the Pokeman people are on bikes now, going back and forth more efficiently I guess ;)

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    1. Yes, it's much better on a bike; the Pokestops are spaced far enough apart so that a bike is just about ideal. Though the game makers implemented a speed limit yesterday (which is pretty easy to exceed, even on a bicycle); you have to confirm that you're a passenger. Hmm, well.

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    2. While I'm occasionally guilty of checking my email on the bike, it is in a very specific context: on rural commutes, along a long straight section of quiet road with no intersections in sight, where I am the only vehicle as far as the eye can see. Still tsk-tsk-worthy. But I would never dream of playing with my phone while cycling in an urban environment.

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  7. One thing about Pokemon Go, here in Pittsburgh, at least, is that it has vastly increased outdoor physical activity. I see people walking (and riding bikes) much more than I did a few weeks ago, before the app launched. I think this is great -- people are out of doors, noticing things (historical markers, gardens, churches) that they've been passing by. They get to know their neighborhoods better than they used to, venture into other areas to collect Pokemon they can't locally, and meet other "trainers" -- otherwise, strangers -- they never talk to. I think this is wonderful. Suppose you had a magic wand that would get young people exercising out of doors, getting to know their neighborhoods, and meeting others. Wouldn't you wave it?
    As to bikelessness, for any reason, it is incredibly disrupting, and I feel your pain. I've been without a bike on occasion, as I wait for a part (I don't have a stable of bikes ready to go like you) and it disrupts everything. I can feel myself growing fatter by the minute. Hope you get better and are back on a bike soon.

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    1. I agree re the aspect of Pokemon Go which has encouraged people to venture outdoors - I have never seen so many young people in the natural environment and maybe after this game has passed its use by date, these people may decide to continue outdoor activities.

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    2. I have experienced a certain 'strangeness' when walking after a period when I was almost exclusively riding my bike. Now I do both - I've always enjoyed walking and it is included in my daily activities, I may ride to one of our lakes, then walk around the perimeter, when I head out on the trails I will find a nice long stretch and walk. I always have my bike with me, bikes are great companions for this, they roll along companionably beside you and never intrude on your thoughts. Riding/walking has many advantages, I can ride past areas I don't wish to walk in and quickly arrive at areas where walking is more relaxing, should I decide I have walked enough, I can then get on my bike, or if I decide to go for a very long walk I can then ride home. I hope that you are soon able to return to cycling and in the meantime enjoy your walks.

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    3. Having never actually played Pokemon Go (or any other phone/computer/video game), that is an interesting aspect of it!

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  8. I'm going to agree with you with regard to the dynamics of this Pokemon thing, though I don't understand the game and my kids decided to avoid it completely. It's noticeable how many more people are out on the streets and in the shops and talking and sharing. Not sure it's wonderful, not sure if they'd ever come back or decide to expand their outdoor experience without the prompts, but it is different. Everyday I cycle to a park to draw and paint landscapes and now I find myself drawing people!! Life's not so bad.

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  9. Great observations! The special thing about humans is that we are never really 'in' this world. Our contact with 'reality' is already very small in the first place. 'Driving a bicycle' or 'playing pokemon' – it seems more different than it actually is. After all 'traffic' is also a heavily augmented reality. And stop lights are escapism, because they make you escape the reality of a possible accident. We humans build stuff to shield ourselves against a world we are at odds with. It's what we do. It's what makes us special.

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  10. Hope you're not kept off the bike for too long.

    Been off since April myself (broken collarbone that hasn't knitted) and it's messing with my head space.

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  11. " On the bike, should I find my visual surroundings monotonous, or disliked the area I am in, I can simply speed up - "scrolling past" the bit I don't like, as it were."

    Do you have some sort of electronic assist? The thing I like about biking, or walking for that matter, is that I'm always there. A stretch of unpleasant road is just that and I can always switch my attention but am never able to just speed up….My body only has so much energy for any given ride.

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  12. I was in my LBS only today waiting to collect my bike which had gone in for a general service. As I waited by the till for my gas pipe constructed, design pretty much unchanged since the 1920s steel machine, I was staring at a display of bike computers by the till. I have no idea what I would use one for. Most seemed to indicate I could download my ride data to somewhere. When did all this happen and how did I miss out on all of this. I muse on stuff like that, not bothered that I don't have all these things, that I'm not engaged in a world I don't understand, but slightly bothered that I should be interested, I should be participating, as I ride along on my bike almost everyone I passes is staring at a handheld device. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?! I'm all alone in a world that's leaving me behind. Left me behind! I got left behind and it does ... bother me ... :(

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    1. I think the inherent problem here is that in the English language we use the word "cycling" to mean two completely different activities: transport and sport. There is a lot of stuff you might see in a bicycle shop that may not necessarily apply to you. Just like a velodrome racer might walk into a bike shop and gaze at a wicker basket, but it has nothing to do with the kind of cycling she does. You are not missing out! Just doing a different kind of activity.

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  13. The Two Lone Pedestrian Dilemma is mostly cultural. Speaking to, or even acknowledging, a stranger here in Chicago would be considered tantamount to assault. At best the first to speak would be seen as mentally ill. Ride a hundred miles north to rural Wisconsin and exchanging pleasantries is simply required. Any who were not forthcoming in such a situation would be seen as anti-social autistic weirdos from Chicago.

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    1. Exactly. After growing up in NYC and then living 14 years in Taipei, I discovered that exchanging pleasantries can actually be, um, pleasant when I moved to Asheville, NC in 2001. Now I say hello to people on the sidewalk when I pass them riding my bike on the road. A pedestrian not smiling and saying hello to a fellow walker would immediately be pegged as an anti-social Yankee unless on a very busy downtown street.

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    2. Funny and true. Where I currently live it would be disconcertingly rude to not say hello to a person you pass on the road. So on my last visit to Boston I would initially do the same out of habit. The bewildered, frightened looks I got in response were hilarious.

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  14. Interesting post. I'm also off the bike currently, following an injury a couple of weeks ago. I'm missing cycling tremendously in many ways; as a physical activity, as a social activity and in practical terms as transport. Walking can be frustrating not only because it takes longer and limits the amount you can carry (eg shopping) but also, for me, because other people walk so slowly. That sounds rather impatient of me but the interesting thing is I only really feel frustrated this way when walking; when riding or even in the past when I used to drive, being held up by slower people was not annoying, it was just a change of pace, sometimes even an interesting test of tactics to overtake. The gratifying thing about walking though is you can instantly stop to look at something that catches your eye (in my case this might be literally to smell the roses, or other plant) or change direction on a whim.

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    1. In addition to not being able to cycle, I also can't lift heavy things... so - yes, the carrying of stuff has been interesting!

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    2. Anonymous, I share your frustration with slow walkers, I am a fast walker and it is impossible for me to dawdle along - I agree re the ability to stop immediately to look at something, I will often get off my bike when in the forest just so that I can enjoy a nature walk and be able to observe everything in closer proximity.

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  15. Haha I can so relate to the Two Pedestrians Dilemma! But I am Aspergers and these things are always a bit difficult for me. I don't know where to look when having a face to face conversation with a person either. Riding bikes side by side is an easy solution ;)

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    1. Interesting. I have heard other ASC people say that cycling facilitates socialising precisely for that reason.

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  16. That is a beautiful beautiful bicycle!

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    1. Thank you. It's a Bella Ciao Neorealista.

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