Bristol is a beautiful city: full of history, art, architecture and colour. Unfortunately, it seems a large number of its residents are missing out on their beautiful surroundings: their smartphone screens are clearly infinitely more interesting!
Almost everyone I pass on the street in Bristol is looking down…instead of looking where they’re going!
I picked up on this peculiar behaviour almost as soon as I moved here a year ago. I found myself playing pedestrian ping-pong on my way down the street, dodging from one side of the pavement to the other to avoid the smartphone zombies walking directly towards me. A two-mile walk to work became a four-mile dance, as I skipped from left to right to avoid collision. A trip home from the supermarket was double-jeopardy: now I had myself and a bag of vulnerable veggies to protect. And if there’s a group coming at you? Well, forget it: far better to take your chances against the cars and walk in the road!
Okay, I realise Bristol isn’t alone in this…it’s actually not ‘peculiar behaviour’ at all, but a universal epidemic that is quickly, and worryingly, becoming the established norm. But having moved here from suburban Hampshire – where the age demographic is somewhat higher, and getting anywhere requires wheels rather than feet – it was almost entirely new to me.
I’d come across it in only one other context; the university at which I used to work. Dodging downward-staring students was a sport for the rest of us on campus. But I felt sure it was a localised phenomenon; that the university environment had lulled the students into a bubble of security that simply made them forget to pay attention. As if the safety of the surrounding campus was enough to protect them from any outside forces.
One tale in particular is worth telling. The university had a road running through its centre and on this road was a crossing point: it wasn’t an official crossing so there were no traffic lights or white lines, but it was the most direct, and therefore the busiest, route on campus. Thousands of students crossed at this point every day, but barely one ever looked up as they did so. This reliance on the theory of ‘safety in numbers’ is another phenomenon I’ve noticed in Bristol: when I cross a road, the people around me follow. They place their trust in me, no questions asked. Luckily for them I remember my Green Cross Code…! Luckily for me, I don’t trust others to remember theirs…and it’s a good job I don’t – the number of people I’ve witnessed crossing the road without a glance (again, their smartphone evidently far too interesting!) is nothing short of frightening.
This is exactly the scenario I encountered at the university: approaching the ‘crossing’ a student in front of me, engrossed in his phone, started stepping into the road. The problem with roads of course is that they’re often full of vehicles, and at this particular moment a bus was passing. I grabbed the student’s rucksack and yanked him back on to the pavement. Only at that point did he look up…at the bus that would have squished him. I’ve since decided that shock must be the reason he didn’t turn around and thank me for saving him from being squished…and that his confusion at the whole situation must be why, as he crossed the road (minus bus) moments later, he was once again staring at this phone screen!
Of course, advances in technology will soon put an end to stories like that. Before long, integrated tech will remove the need for a physical phone, so we’ll have nothing to look down at. Instead, I imagine we’ll simply switch on our ‘entertainment eye’ and while our left eyeball enjoys videos of startled cats (because there are some things that will never grow old…) our right eye will be in charge of looking where we’re going. What happens when we need a third eye to read a text, I’m not too sure – perhaps the very notion of ‘reading’ a text will also be entirely antiquated. Automation, too, will undoubtedly be part of the solution. We’re already building cars that think for themselves, so why not bicycles or skateboards or even shoes?
But let’s imagine for a moment that further advancement of technology isn’t inevitable. Let’s say the tech we have now is the best we’re going to get. What then? My writer’s imagination runs wild with images of human evolution kicking in…our necks slowly becoming naturally bent, our eyes gradually parting ways, until eventually we have one on top of our heads for guiding us so the other one can focus on those all-important cat videos. Or, perhaps, we’ll all just develop sonar…I feel the premise for a new sci-fi novel…
For now, we’re in a bit of a conundrum. And I for one am not sure how much longer my patience will hold out. Each time I have to dodge someone on a pavement I get a little angrier. A little more tempted to stick my elbows out as they pass or, alternatively, just walk into them. Because as it turns out, it’s a little boring always being the one who changes course…!
So if you’re reading this, and you live in Bristol, and you want to avoid my elbows – try looking up once in a while. Not just for my sake, but for your own: this is a beautiful place, and you’re missing it. After all, would it really kill us to put our phones away until we get home?