Traveling by air, for me, is a good chance to catch up on my backlog of reading. And yes, I still live in an historical cocoon where my carry-on-bag contains books and magazines (in addition to my notebook computer). On a recent trip, two things that I read struck a chord.
The first was an article in a recent issue of Time Magazine, where Fareed Zakaria asked: “Are America’s best days behind us?" He quoted numbers that seem to indicate a decline of the U.S. leadership position in such field as education, health and technology.
One of the main reasons he gave was U.S. politics -- where it is too risky to “call it like it is,” leading us away from addressing and finding solutions to key problem and underlying issues or, even more so, to emulate what others are doing to solve similar problems. In essence, political correctness is not the road to confronting and solving the problems that really count. Getting re-elected is more important than addressing the real needs of the population.
The other was the book “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell. One of the points he makes is that too much information can be counter-productive, as opposed to focusing on a few parameters that are important. In essence, he believes many good, quick judgments work because our minds tend to focus on things that have lodged in our subconscious, often as the result of repeated exposure to situations.
These two points came together for me as the result of several incidents on my trip. At one boarding gate, a special security line had been set up to check all passenger’s identities and boarding passes. A second area had been roped off with tables. Everyone was routed through the identity check and then told to take a seat. As it turned out, everyone would eventually have to go through the roped off area where carry-on baggage was hand checked. That was going to be done according to the airline boarding system -- but no one had been told, and consequently, everyone crowded up to the entry way to get on the plane. It was pandemonium. No one seemed to care. I asked the gate agent about the chaos. His comment, accompanied by a shrug, was: “It’s like this every day, only normally worse. This is a relatively light flight.”
One leg of my trip took me through U.S. Customs. I experienced something similar. There were separate lines for U.S. and foreign citizens, but no one made sure that people followed the signs to the proper line. Our flight arrived late and the gentleman behind me had a tight connection. But there were several foreigners in front, and it took 15-20 minutes to process each of them, whereas U.S. citizens cleared in less than a minute.
In a way it was nice to see that the customs officials were concerned about making the foreign visitors go to the back of the appropriate line. But there were other ways to handle this if someone cared -- like a separate line for people with tight connections or a special line for foreigners who made this error (two young men in front of us had learned to do it purposely), or someone standing in front to direct traffic. I let the gentleman behind me move ahead. I later saw him in the airport. He had missed his connection. He had reached security at the concourse in time to barely make his flight, but his two metal knee replacements resulted in “special handling” and a missed flight.
The incident in the airport reminded me of a similar traffic situation in Arizona. Recently, a cattle truck turned over on I-17, the only north-south artery connecting Phoenix to Flagstaff and to I-40, a major east-west interstate. The accident happened at 3 a.m. I hit the traffic jam at 9 a.m. The traffic blockage stretched for miles. It didn’t start starting moving until 11:30 a.m. Except at the scene of the accident, there was no police presence to manage the back-up, to prevent people from running the shoulders and to provide any information. No one seemed to care. (Perhaps of even greater concern, these types of accidents are regular and anticipated happening. What does this say about preparedness for an act of terrorism?)
I recently attended a meeting where virtually everyone had, sitting before them, a smart-phone or computer. About every 10 minutes someone took a call -- in a few cases, they moved outside of the room. In most of the cases they answered it there. Few of the calls were related, in any way, to the subject of the meeting. In between, people were texting and reading and answering e-mails. All of this seemed to be part of the new multi-tasking environment.
At a dinner party I attended, with 10 people present, half used their cell phones during the evening -- receiving calls, texting and doing various and sundry other chores. Even on a sailing trip, with eight people present, six received and made cell phone calls. What has happened to relaxation -- and to pleasant conversation?
I guess I don’t understand the need for constant connectivity. Clearly there are times when there are emergencies that justify interruptions. And there are justifications for some business situations where people must be “on call.” But what about lack of concentration (not only in meetings, but when driving, for example?) And where does rudeness come into the picture?
About two years ago, in an interview on the Conan O'Brien show, Seinfeld commented on smart phones. Two of his observations, humorous but pointed, relate to these situations. One was that in a conversation, people seem to “listen to what you are saying and then compare it to what is on their Blackberry to see which is more interesting.” The other was: “Do we even know what rudeness is anymore? Can I just pick up a magazine and put it in front of your face and read it while you are talking? Is that OK?”
How do these things all come together? First, why do we need to be connected 24/7 (it is even a problem with sleep deprivation in young children who take their electronic devices to bed with them.) Why do we need so much information about what is going on -- and need it instantly. Perhaps Gladwell might have some observations on that.
Second -- we seem to avoid people-sensitive issues and those are really the ones that make a difference. Callous behavior on the part of politicians and authorities undermines optimism and a sense of well-being for the future. Many of these devices seem to focus our attention on our own needs, drawing us away from the human drama that surrounds us. Quality of life may be improved by better and faster communications, but it also may weaken the social bonds between humans and that sense of caring for others. That may be a part of what Zakaria was sensing.
How we behave with and care about one another is the essence of the civilization we have built. An eroding level of consideration bodes badly for future. Is rudeness no longer rude? We need to reassert the values that are important to our society -- a statement of how we treat each other. Then we have to figure out a way to make it happen.
Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via email at email@example.com.