Jim Duffy: Commuters trust tech, but not their fellow passengers

Jim Duffy found that while people refuse to talk to each other on the London Underground, they are all happy to communicate feverishly on social media. Picture:  AFP / Ben Stansall
Jim Duffy found that while people refuse to talk to each other on the London Underground, they are all happy to communicate feverishly on social media. Picture: AFP / Ben Stansall
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After failing to raise a smile from Smithers-Jones types down in the tube station, Jim Duffy senses an emotionally crippled generation

As I descended the escalator at Kings Cross Underground, I decided to smile at everyone else who was passing by me at 8am. I’m spending lots of time in London right now as I build my new venture. It’s kind of like an adventure with my new CEO whipping me up and down underground stations and back streets to get to meetings. But, I thought I would do some sociological studies on Wednesday as I travelled around London. The results were most insightful….

I smiled at men in business suits, the Smither Jones types hoping for promotion and more money and a fancier watch. None of them smiled back. They just looked at me wondering what game I was playing at. They were immediately suspicious. I’m glad I wasn’t sporting a beard and holding a copy of the Quran. To them I was just a nutter who was not part of their world.

I smiled at younger guys who were wearing fitness apparel and looked like they were going to the gym or returning from it. They all wore tighter tops than they should, showing off their muscles and 
physiques. It was a statement. They also looked at me for a few seconds. Was I eyeing them up? Was I gay? I’m not sure they liked the attention of a male smiling at them on the escalator. Yet, none of them was aggressive or pulled a face to say, stop lookin at me matey. But, it got better…

I then smiled at girls who were most likely on their way to work. Black outfits with white blouses. They looked at me and a few did make cursory eye contact and then in a split second, acknowledged me. But is was perfunctory and very last minute as they were still processing why I was smiling. It did occur to me that I was old to them and maybe it felt a bit creepy. Then I smiled at girls wearing jeans and women wearing more smart, but casual outfits. Result! I got a few brief smiles back. I think from the momentary bonding we had, they were cool with me breaking the escalator rules. Not a great ratio of positive human interaction overall, I thought, as I headed to the platform.

The platforms on the tube were hugely busy. Warm, stale air and perfume and body spray. I stood back from the yellow lines and watched everybody. No-one was talking to any other human being. Many were on phones typing away furiously. Some were just scrolling new items and Facebook posts.

Then the train approached and the jockeying for position started. No real etiquette or women and children first, just eyes on the door opening and the chore of getting inside. The train was already packed. But, we all managed to squash on. As I stood, I looked at everybody around me. People so close I could have chatted away to them no bother. But, to do so would have been weird for them. It was not what they were used to. It would have made these human beings uncomfortable to say the least. Over half the carriage was still on mobile phones. The communication was taking place digitally, while human beings ignored each other.

I made it to Old Street, where I headed for Pret A Manger for my coffee, oat and spelt cookie and yoga bunny apple drink. I sat down and started chatting to my colleague. How do people actually meet here and date? If no-one talked to each other, then how do human beings actually meet up, hook up and do what we are supposed to do - meet a partner? He looked at me as if I was daft and said that what Apps are for - Tinder, Feeld etc….

Then it hit me and if you think about it, I wonder how far technology is playing a part in breaking down human interaction that for years came naturally. Because we are so engrossed in our technology and in a city like London, where no-one talks for hours on public transport, except to shout at the tube worker at the barrier - TFL sucks - we become reliant upon this technology to meet and talk to people. How bonkers is that? By using Apps like Tinder, Blendr or Pure, people use technology to meet and bond with other human beings.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to turn to the person next to you, boy or girl, and start a conversation?

I again watched I, Robot this week with Will Smith playing a game with robots and artificial intelligence. It made me think about where we are now as a society. I wondered if an outside agency from outer space would come down here and consider us - Robots - as we already kinda act like that and it isn’t going to get any better. The London Underground set ignore each other, but are happy to send intimate texts, snap chats, Kik chats and more to complete strangers. They trust the tech, but not their fellow passengers, despite the fact that a potential partner or friend could be sitting across from them right there and then.

I’m glad I’m getting older as if this is where we are headed as technology takes over even more human communication, then the next generation will be muted: a next generation of emotionally crippled, app-enabled robots.