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Metro Reflections

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Arts and Review

by David Hoban

PARIS (July 21, 2011) - I noticed, commuting on the train in early morning Paris, women who were half-dressed, getting dressed and made up. It was as if the jam-packed car was a private boudoir. Ordinarily I would think that making up the face is done in private until the face in the mirror matches the mask one wants to present to the public. Not true. I watched a woman put on lipstick, lip-liner, powder, eye shadow, and eye-liner then, replacing sandals with high heels, she tied a scarf around her neck and pulled her tight, tapered pants over her heels. She was not alone. It seemed possible to me that these women had, in fact, placed themselves in an autistic shell awaiting their emergence into the world of offices or professionalism, in such a way that the masses did not exist at all.
 
Added to this is the sight of nine in ten people texting and stroking their I-pods in a ‘different,’ solipsistic world. Perhaps there is no difference since almost everyone who was not making up was sharing a distinctive posture, neck bent forward, chin down, eyes fixed, both thumbs moving rapidly. There is hardly a person to be seen reading a newspaper so the opportunity to offend by glancing at someone’s open page seems forever lost. The obsessive, addictive quality is hard to ignore.
 
All of this leads me to think, although people generally believe they are connected, and that this constitutes something beneficial for society, that the autistic shell is the next evolving organ. What people are doing in reality is not ‘connecting’ but putting themselves in a state of consciousness which involves, at best, being in contact with a machine and symbols. Symbols, of course stand for something, but are not the thing. What is transmitted is quantitative bits of information, even if that information is “I love you.” Information is not understanding. The multiplication of information is the tower of Babel. People might be exchanging the getting of attention and the giving of attention through these media but absent is the intangible yet vitally essential, qualitative, dynamic living exchange that exists only through direct human contact.  
 
So, while we are priding ourselves in the revolutionary impact of the information age, perhaps we should take pause before another ‘hope’ for humanity turns into the next (mysterious) problem to be solved.

David Hoban is a Santa Cruz psychiatrist and essayist.