Tom Vanderbilt says Americans don’t walk as much as they used to; automobile usage has eaten into our perambulation time.
If walking is a casualty of modern life the world over — the historian Joe Moran estimates, for instance, that in the last quarter century in the U.K., the amount of walking has declined by 25 percent — why then do Americans walk even less than people in other countries? Here we need to look not at pedometers, but at the odometer: We drive more than anyone else in the world. (Hence a joke: In America a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car.) Statistics on walking are more elusive than those on driving, but from the latter one might infer the former: The National Household Travel Survey shows that the number of vehicle trips a person took and the miles they traveled per day rose from 2.32 trips and 20.64 miles in 1969 to 3.35 and 32.73 in 2001. More time spent driving means less time spent on other activities, including walking. And part of the reason we are driving more is that we are living farther from the places we need to go; to take just one measure, in 1969, roughly half of all children lived a mile or more from their school; by 2001 three out of four did. During that same period, unsurprisingly, the rates of children walking to school dropped from roughly half to approximately 13 percent.
Sherry Turkle says young Americans don’t converse as much as they used to; usage of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPod has eaten into our chat time.
A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them. He says they’re “too busy on their e-mail.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.”
A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.
A cockpit or perhaps the safe bubble of the automobile? Steve Jobs was fond of saying the personal computer was “a bicycle for our mind”:
I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
Perhaps then the iPhone is an automobile for our mind in that it allows us to go anywhere very quickly but isolates us along the way.
ps. This photo that accompanies Vanderbilt’s article is kind of amazing:
Totally speechless. I think it’s further from my desk to the bathroom here in the office than it is from that house to the bus.