Finding our own little worlds has never been easier

Mar 04, 2009 By Mike Cassidy

What an author won't do for a book. In 2004, San Jose State University associate professor Andy Wood decided to embark upon an experiment: He would fly from San Jose to New York, rent a car and drive back the 3,000 miles to San Jose without saying more than 10 words a day to those he encountered.

Turns out he didn't need anywhere near 10. In the end he uttered only five words on the five-day trip through airports, motels, restaurants and gas stations - "Andy Wood," "Andy Wood" and "sauce."

Crazy? Well, no. The trip confirmed for Wood that he was onto something - on to something that ultimately resulted in the release this week of Wood's book, "City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication and the Rise of Omnitopia" (Hampton Press, $24.95).

It's a scholarly work that tackles some fairly esoteric and philosophical notions of how we interact - or don't - in all manner of places, including shopping malls, motels, hotels and airports. It explores Wood's definition of "omnitopia," a place and state fueled by the sameness of experiences in modern public places and enabled by personal technology. I'll leave the deeper discussion to Wood, a communication studies expert, and other scholars. (See www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/omnitopia for more.)

What fascinated me was Wood's road trip, which he relives in the book's introduction.

"I wanted to find myself in the continuum of experiences," Wood, 41, tells me, "where speaking with people was neither good nor bad, but it was superfluous."

It turns out that that superfluous place is almost anywhere in America, depending on how you choose to experience it. With the help of Silicon Valley, we have grown into a society where it's possible to quite literally live in your own little world. So much of what we do, we do alone, even while surrounded by people.

ATMs, cell phones, laptops, credit card readers, ticket kiosks, iPods, online shops. They make it so much easier to get on with life while ignoring those around us. And in that way, they make it more acceptable.

One of Wood's most creative tricks was to rely on what social scientists call "anticipatory disengagement," - in his case putting his cell phone to his ear to avoid conversation. (Tell me you've never tried it on a panhandler.)

Wood had other tricks, too. He avoided gassing up in New Jersey. They had mandatory full service there. He made online reservations at extended-stay motels. They leave the key for you in a lock box after hours and guests help themselves to meals. He ate at fast-food restaurants that offered kiosks through which customers ordered food.

In fact, it was at a Wawa sandwich shop kiosk where Wood ordered horseradish with his roast beef. "Real horseradish or sauce?" the counter clerk filling the order wanted to know. "Sauce," he said.

Wood also broke his vow of silence when the rental car clerk asked his name. Twice.

Yes, he talked to himself. He fell in love with talk radio. He felt terrible not saying "please" and "thank you." And he confirmed something we already knew. Going through life cut off from those around you is no way to live.

"It's like being a deep sea diver gasping for air," Wood says. "I really yearned for that contact."

It's our choice, of course, to build barricades of personal technology around ourselves. To wall ourselves off. To anticipatorily disengage. But it's a choice that we may well be unconsciously slipping into more often.

Among other things, Wood's book is a warning that we might want to think seriously about what we lose by living in a bubble.

___

(Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read his Loose Ends blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/Cassidy and contact him at mcassidy at mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5536.)

___

(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Sistine chapel dazzles after technological makeover

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Giant new plant shows coal power isn't going away

Mar 07, 2012

The Prairie State power plant, set amid farm fields and woods in southwestern Illinois, will start producing power soon, beginning a life of burning local coal that's expected to last until at least the 2040s.

Heads or tails? It all depends on some key variables

Oct 20, 2009

Everyone knows the flip of a coin is a 50-50 proposition. Only it's not. You can beat the odds. So says a three-person team of Stanford and UC-Santa Cruz researchers. They produced a provocative study that turns conventional ...

Touch screen gamble: which technology to use

Oct 15, 2009

Prompted partly by the iPhone's phenomenal popularity, consumers are demanding and likely to get a wider range of touch screens on many more electronic devices.

Recommended for you

Sistine chapel dazzles after technological makeover

9 hours ago

High above the altar in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, the halo around Jesus Christ's head in Michelangelo's famous frescoes shines with a brighter glow, thanks to a revolutionary new lighting system.

Free urban data—what's it good for?

Oct 29, 2014

Cities around the world are increasingly making urban data freely available to the public. But is the content or structure of these vast data sets easy to access and of value? A new study of more than 9,000 ...

Rice team sets sights on better voting machine

Oct 27, 2014

At the urging of county election officials in Austin, Texas, a group of Rice University engineers and social scientists has pulled together a team of U.S. experts to head off a little-known yet looming crisis ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.