EVERYDAY ROBOTS

“We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home
Looking like standing stones
Out there on our own”

 

(Damon Albarn)

 
 

I love to observe people. In fact, one of the things that drove me to study Sociology was the prospect of having a professional excuse to do so. This so Berlin prerogative to be able to stare, bluntly, is something I adore. Observing people on the S-Bahn had been activating this earworm, and led me to reflect on the contradictions of being «everyday robots».

On the one hand, completely isolated from the rest of the world,

the person,
the smart phone,

and this invisible bubble detaching them from whatever else is going on. Inside the bubble, it feels like an intimate and private space. Like when reading a book –head down, attention focused– one can get so absorbed that the background seems to disappear. So much so, that I can indulge myself and stare insolently. No one ever notices.

On the other hand, in the eyes of the beholder (mine) the bubble is not only literally invisible but also inexistent. To be secluded in a private and intimate space in public transportation is a contradiction. People on their phones are far from being isolated in their own private spaces and far from being robots. They display all of their emotions! Inside their spurious bubbles, they emote all that their small virtual reality containers trigger.

Yes, some do look absolutely bored, blank, gone. They watch at their phones like people used to watch TV: to turn their brain off. You can see their thumbs scrolling constantly down, not reading or actually looking; the current version of the old zapping (has nobody come up with a word for that yet?) This is the group I observe the least. They are robots. They let life pass by while they drag through their Facebook feeds. This image of missing out on life activates a sense of asphyxia in me, so I deviate my gaze. It’s always hard to look at what you dislike in yourself, reflected on others. I have enough already with the million times a day I refresh my inbox or FB.

Those expressing emotions—unaware—entertain me more. I like noticing people feeling happy, for instance. Something makes them smile and they maintain that smile for a long while. I imagine they got great news, a kind message from someone they care about, or a positive and long awaited answer. Occasionally, someone even laughs out loud. Magic moment: both smiling and laughter are contagious.

I pay special attention to those who I imagine flirting or sexting. A suggestive smile every time they read or send a message, accompanied by a warm blushing and a look off into the horizon, imagining those words becoming reality. It gets me a bit horny.

Once I saw the woman sitting in front of me cry; she looked at her phone and two big tears suddenly welled, dropped. What could have caused such an uncontrollable reaction? It was as if someone had pushed a button. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back and let her tears run silently down her cheeks. In a few seconds she was all rosy and damp, but completely calmed. I couldn’t help but feel touched. Public transportation is a shitty place to feel vulnerable, and yet I couldn’t stop staring at her.

What I find most stunning about the everyday robots contradiction is exactly that: all these people on their phones believe they are living their private (virtual) life, and are unaware of their (real) public display of emotions.
 
 
Words and visuals by Angie Kohon

Edited by Louise Trueheart

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