The Quiet Train Ride

Each day, as a Wollongong resident, I travel for just over three hours to and from work in Sydney. Anyone who rides trains around the Sydney area will have at least one shocking story to tell you; I have numerous stories of my own, which frankly aren’t really appropriate to share on this blog. I have seen some unpleasant stuff.

Aside from the embarrassing, the shocking and the disgusting, there is something that really bothers me about riding public transport these days: the excessive use of mobile devices. When I use the term ‘mobile device’, I refer broadly to any computer in laptop, smartphone or tablet form.

Call me an “old-fashioned Gen-Y”, but there is something inherently sad and anti-social about the way we use these devices in public spaces. We don’t supplement face-to-face communication with them, we just replace that interaction entirely. In the case of quiet carriages, for example, I think this isn’t a problem. I understand that people often use these carriages in order to study or work during their long commute. In ‘normal’ carriages, however, it feels a little wrong. Here we have the same people, day in and day out, recognising each other and yet ignoring each other completely. There’s often the sideways glance and the immediate turn of the head back to the screen, once the other person realises that he or she was just being watched.

I think it’s a tremendous shame that instead of turning to the person in the adjacent seat for an introduction and chat, people sit there aimlessly twiddling their Home screens and refreshing Instagram and Facebook news feeds. I love digital technology and the apps and networks that populate it, but every morning, I feel that the long commute could be brightened and sped up if people put down their screens for even five minutes.

Perhaps this is just a personal quirk. I often embarrass my girlfriend when out and about by holding small talk (and sometimes longer conversations) with people in shops and general service situations. It’s this day-to-day chat, just learning something about a stranger or meeting someone new, which I feel is being lost. We’d all just prefer to wallow in our familiar, digital social networks and complain when we see the same old filtered shots of people’s organic, hipster breakfasts.

I yearn for the sort of stereotypical things that I’ve heard happen in South America: people arguing loudly about politics on buses passionately with lots of erratic hand movements. Oh well, perhaps Australians are missing that cultural, communicative drive. We’re all just too laid-back or maybe as adults we fear public embarrassment.

What’s even sadder is this: in order to fit in, I’ve had to sit here on the train on my iPhone, hypocritically blogging about the very thing that irks me. What else can I do?

I suppose the one solace is that there will always be some sort of unusual entertainment on the train. Yesterday, among the sea of people staring at mobile devices, one guy (who wouldn’t have been any older than 40), insisted on spreading out his copy of The Sydney Morning Herald. As other passengers elegantly swiped and scrolled through digital content, this guy stood there in the vestibule, repeatedly folding, unfolding and turning the pages of his newspaper, occasionally dropping entire sections on the floor as the train shook violently. In order to maintain the proper flow and integrity of his newspaper, he would then go through it meticulously to make sure he was reinserting the pages into their correct places. What I felt as I observed him was a strange mixture of sympathy and amusement.

So to wrap up, I suppose if you’re going to have your face buried in something and ignore those around you on public transport, you’d may as well make a big, clumsy statement in the process. Tomorrow, I think I’ll bring along an old World Book encyclopedia.

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