September 9, 2018

YANG | Thoughts from the Subway

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I worked in a research lab at a university in my hometown this past summer and, for the first time in my life, experienced what it’s like to have a long commute — an hour and a half each way standing in a hot, humid, insanely crowded subway car. Most of my fellow commuters spent these long and miserable daily trips on their phones, either scrolling through Weibo (think Twitter) feeds, watching viral videos, playing online games, binging the newest hit TV series or reading trending articles on Wechat (a Chinese amalgamation of Facebook and Instagram). Hundreds of commuters with headphones on staring down at their smartphone screens was quite a sight be behold but also incredibly frustrating, especially when I had to transfer lines at one of the busiest stations downtown, and had to follow a massive crowd of people up flights of stairs to another platform, a process slowed down significantly by those who were too absorbed in their phones to even walk properly.

Despite my frustration, and because social learning is a natural thing that we all do, a few days into this commuter life, I also started killing time by spending it solely on my phone, going through my Weibo feed more times than necessary, replying to comments, reading Wechat articles that I normally wouldn’t care for and, when all that was still not enough, busted out my VPN to go through Instagram and Twitter.

Yet, as you may have guessed by now, aggressively working my way through every social media platform every morning and evening did not make me feel “more connected” to friends and family, all the articles I read did not make me significantly more knowledgeable in certain areas or enlighten me on social or political issues, nor did the viral funny videos make me happier. In fact, I was always cranky and snappy by the end of the day, feeling like my day not only exhausted me physically, but mentally as well.

My fellow Arts columnist Ramya Yandava ’21, in her first column two weeks ago, pointed out the inherent contradiction in “Instapoetry,” and the problems with turning art into a commodity, into shareable, retweetable pieces that are neither memorable or valuable to its readers in the long run. While I don’t quite agree with Ramya’s stance on what poetry should or should not look like, what she pointed out here was a rather crucial issue facing not just art, but information and creativity in general in our fast-paced, digital world.

In this world where time is fragmented and sources of information are always within our grasps, we’ve become increasingly like sponges that want to soak up as much as information in as short a time as possible, but can’t seem to filter and retain what’s truly valuable. Our judgement is clouded by the plethora of information and creative content available to us, much of which as short-lived and insignificant as a Snapchat message, seeking to draw time and attention from its audience but provides nothing substantial in return. As a result, we become faster at spitting out information as well — we feel the need to decide our stance on an issue the minute we read a news headline, we fight people who don’t agree with us not to engage in thoughtful debate but simply to voice what we believe to be right, and we can’t seem to pause our fingers on the keyboard and think twice about what we’re about to say.

But let’s go back for a second, to me on my commute back home on a humid August evening, in a packed subway car that smelled like sweat and exhaustion. At the time I had not realized that this reckless intake of information was making me mentally sick, the same way eating excessive amounts of junk food every day would physically. I had forgotten to charge my phone in the afternoon and, upon remembering that I had a book in my backpack from a recent trip to my favorite bookstore, pulled out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up and started reading. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I wasn’t reading a web article, and had to stop myself from skimming and jumping around — a habit I’ve fallen into after weeks of reading pretty much only on my phone. People standing around me in the subway car glanced curiously at me and my stack of paper with words printed on them, as if they’d never seen a real book, or someone actually reading one. I  wish I’m making this up, but I really am not.

I got home that day more relieved and clear-headed than I’d ever been in the past month. My brain wasn’t clogged with pieces of information I had no idea what to do with, and it felt as if I had actually spent that hour and a half doing something. That isn’t to say all books are better than stuff on the internet, or that there isn’t valuable, worthy content on the internet — there’s plenty of it, in fact. I am saying, however, that I had pulled myself back and focused my mind on one valuable thing instead of a ton of fragmented combinations of ASCII code that weren’t going to leave a dent in my memory. In the end, life deserves to be experienced in full, and knowledge and information require effort to create and time to process and absorb, so in that respect, perhaps less is really more. We are not machines, after all.

Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes Till Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.