Electronics in the City: Digital Zombies

Pokemon Go Players, Knoxville, July 2016

Sometimes I wonder what cities were like before our lives were taken over by electronics. I should be able to remember that era, but it’s hard. It’s probably a genie in the bottle at this point, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we could carve out no use or low use zones? Maybe I’m the only one it bothers, but I doubt it. Sometimes I’m the guilty party.

It started with televisions. Remember when you first saw a television in a restaurant? It was odd. And in those early days, it was usually one television and the sound was on. Now the sound is mostly off, but they visually assault us from every direction. With the exception of sports bars where they are the point, what is up with that?

It’s a rare restaurant without a television. I’ll pick a restaurant without one every time I have a choice. But I have to be honest: that bobbing, popping, snapping, ever changing picture will catch me every time. If there are words scrolling along the bottom, I cannot keep my eyes away. What if I missed something, right?

Of course, cell phones have taken it to another level. We’re all guilty at some point of forgetting we are in an actual place and losing ourselves in our phones as we google the age of an actor we thought was dead or check twitter in case the president has tweeted at us or Kylie Jenner has a cute new meme and we might be the only one who hasn’t seen it by 10:30 AM. Oh, and we haven’t checked the news in twenty minutes! What if something has happened in Kuala Lumpur?

I get it: We’re all busy. Why not check our email while we walk to our next meeting? Well, maybe because you are walking half speed on the sidewalk without realizing it and the rest of us would like to get to our meeting. Or your are weaving all over the sidewalk or stopped completely on the sidewalk, completely immersed in digital land, far, far away.

Pokemon Go Players, Knoxville, July 2016

And don’t get me started on all the drivers I see downtown (some of whom have nearly killed me) while holding cell phone in one hand and using the other to steer while they run a stop sign while looking in the distance for the friend they are supposed to meet. Excuse me for being in your crosswalk!

The worst, in my opinion, was when the Pokemon craze hit. Talk about your walking digital zombies! Simply strolling a downtown sidewalk became a hazardous activity. Phones held in front of them, running as rapidly as possible, the hunters or whatever they call themselves were completely oblivious to anyone who might be pursuing something of a normal walk about the city.

Another current electronic craze and one that has been around for a good long time, but seems to have become ubiquitous is the ear bud stroll. There’s still more than a little casual conversation to be had on the street in downtown Knoxville where small town meets mid-sized city, but it has changed. Now quite often I speak to someone only to realize they are plugged in. It always feels like I’ve inconvenienced them to have a conversation. When did that turn happen?

The worst recent electronic invasion, in my (more cranky than I realized) opinion, is the small ear piece that suffices for a full-on telephone. Now, we’ve always had people walking around downtown carrying on conversations with people who weren’t there and that still happens. The people using these little devices come across in precisely the same manner. Now it’s hard to determine: real friends or imaginary? And I don’t really like hearing the conversations in either case.

Some of these thoughts started with this Washington Post article. It’s a couple of years old, but I’ve kept it book marked and thought about it from time-to-time. It turns out that some New York City coffee shops were killing their wifi. As the author noted, sometimes you go into a coffee shop these days and if you talk to your table-mate, you almost feel like you are interfering with the people around you who are working or playing on their laptops. You might even get a dirty look.

What they found happened when they killed wifi was that people didn’t camp out on the tables (more sales as tables turn!) and people actually . . . wait for it . . . talked to other people. It was almost like the social gathering place once known as coffee shops. One set of shops even offered conversation starter cards. Put one on your table in front of you and it serves as an invitation for a stranger to sit down, answer the question and start a conversation. It even worked sometimes!

I know, it’s the whole genie in the bottle and I’m just as likely as anybody to be buried in my phone or laptop in the coffee shop. Still, it seems worth the effort to give some thought to how electronics are hurting the social order in little ways not always obvious. Maybe we could all just try to look up occasionally. We might be surprised at what we are missing in the real world while we chase the digital universe.


  1. Do you have any video of that? I’d love to find out some additional information.

  2. Damn millennials. Always on their phones.

  3. > The worst, in my opinion, was when the Pokemon craze hit.

    I loved this. It was before I had a smart phone. But I facilitated weekly acro jams at World’s Fair Park. It was wonderful to see hundreds of people outside, walking around, enjoying the space. It was memorable. Of course it was silly. But it seemed silly in a good way.

    These are the acro jams, all welcome:

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Yeah, I remember having mixed feelings. Getting off the couch and out in nature was the good part of the craze. Good point.

  4. OK, I’ll say it. Someone has to … YOU KIDS GET OFFUH MUH LAWN!

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Thought about this the whole time I was writing it and almost ended with it. 🙂 On the other hand, as I acknowledged, I’m one of the kids.

    • Leticia Flores says

      Steevie beat me to it. I am with you- I love my gadgets, but I miss the days when I had impromptu conversations with the person next to me reading my favorite book or something, or who was also watching an even unfold in front of us on the street. It still happens, but this stuff I think highlights the generational gap that is widening. I don’t think this phenomenon is unrelated to the fact that people are feeling more socially isolated. We are surrounded by people who are engaged with something virtual, and something other than our shared reality. And yet, we still have jam sessions, trivia nights, and live music- some people will always be seeking communion with others in the real (or maybe I should say now, the non-virtual) world. Just don’t get me started on those people who are filming a live concert on their phones instead of actually experiencing it with their own eyes…

  5. I usually wouldn’t describe anything on this blog as reactionary..but..well, this is pretty reactionary. The term Luddite comes to mind. And as for acting as if listening to music while walking is new?..uh..the Walkman landed in 1979–that began 40 years ago. Pokemon go actually got people out to explore their city and nature, can’t say that about much else in the last few years. Yeah, they look at their phone while tracking and catching a Pokemon, but I’d mark the exercise and exploration aspects as a net positive.

    While I agree that people should sit and enjoy the conversation of one another at a meal, I don’t agree that the technology is the issue with most of the gripes you described. More often than not, the people blocking the sidewalks are the four-abreast groups talking about this or that while traveling at a pace of approximately 1mph–all the while blocking about 20 people from getting to their destination at a reasonable rate.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Yep. Sometimes I can get a little reactionary. Yeah, the Walkman, but lately it is every other person. Non-reactionary programming coming soon. And I agree about the four-abreast thing. Drives us crazy.

  6. Chris Eaker says

    This resonated in so many ways, Alan! I work at UT and constantly I have to remind students “Look where you’re going!” when they nearly run into me for staring at their phones. You look at the line at the Starbucks in Hodges Library, and everyone is looking down at their phones. Nobody is talking to anyone. Let’s not even start on the students stepping out into the roads to cross without even the slightest glance up from their devices.

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