Today's Civil Inattention

Alex Cain

Public transportation: you either love it or hate it. Sure, it has both its benefits and its drawbacks but in an area like the Twin Cities, you can’t beat its convenience and affordability. There I was, sitting on the Green Line on my weekly trip to Saint Paul, earbuds in and my mind somewhere else, when I glanced up from my phone and looked at the people around me. Not one person was talking; everyone was either on their phones or staring out the window, preoccupied and trapped in their own bubble.


Now, we’re all guilty of this, especially me as I sat there with my headphones in. I was so disconnected from the world around me despite how physically close I was to these other people. Everyone had the same purpose of riding the light rail: to get where they needed to be. And yet, all the time spent on it, no one had the time to meet someone new or ask them how their day is going. There is this sort of lack of intimacy in such a public and tight space.


This same experience happens in elevators all the time. You hop on the elevator, maybe having a conversation with a friend or coworker, when suddenly the elevator stops and a new person gets on. Elevators are tight spaces and immediately you feel the need to end your conversation. Whether it be to keep the conversation private or to avoid any awkwardness, you stand there silent until the elevator reaches your floor and you move on with your life. Those moments where you’re in close quarters with complete strangers happen all the time. We just don’t realize it because we’re in our own bubble.


I didn’t know what to call this strange feeling until I went to my English class two days later. We were talking about Charles Dickens and how he portrayed Victorian society during the time of mass industrialization in London. My professor said that urban life at that time involved a lot of people in a small amount of space, and despite that small amount of space, people kept to themselves and their own lives. She talked about Erving Goffman who in 1963 came up with the term “civil inattention,” which describes this problematic indifference of people to the world around them. He says that this detachment from other people leads us to lose our personality and individuality, making us machines more than humans.  


Of course in that context, we were applying the term to 19th century London where a strict social class structure often held people from breaking out of their bubble. But it still got me thinking, what would Dickens say about society today? Are we all problematically indifferent? Is this the age of extreme civil inattention? With the rise and influence of technology, we’re constantly exposed to screens and gadgets and images (as I type this on my laptop and listen to music on my phone). How has this technology changed who we are as people? Are we slowly becoming machines ourselves?