One of the strange effects of our increasingly mediatized surroundings is the creation of small, micro-private spaces with mobile media. Take for example the subway. Smartphones can be a source not only of personal absorption, but also a means of averting certain undesirable eye contact. “That guy’s looking at me strangely, let me pretend I’m occupied on my phone.” Similarly iPods generate a personal soundtrack for the rider, and noise-cancelling headphones even operate on the premise of their ability to tune out the world. Indeed participating and noticing our surroundings are becoming more and more optional for many as they move through public space. Warnings about the dangers of texting while driving are dangerous reminders of how much screens can remove us from what’s around us.
However, these microzones of privacy are really just illusions. When “tuning out the world,” the world most definitely does not consequently tune you out. Whatever you can see on your screen, so can anyone near you. This leads to often to situations of visual eavesdropping – catching glimpses of images or words on screens not intended for public consumption. These can be alternately embarrassing or entertaining, depending on which type of viewer you are.
Once on a bus I was watching the film Swingtime, a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers picture that seemed harmless enough. Halfway through the picture, however, there was a minstrel scene – and not a White Christmas minstrel show in white face, but full-on Fred Astaire in black face. While I had been pleasantly absorbed into the film’s narrative space, this scene instantly took me back to my surroundings and I quickly looked behind me and decided to fast-forward through the scene (after shrinking the media player’s window). It wasn’t that people would know I had watched such a thing that caused my alarm (it was rather innocuous, and who hasn’t seen films with racially insensitive scenes?), but rather that someone would see me in the act of watching it by myself. I wouldn’t feel the same level of embarrassment as a viewer seeing the film in a theater or even discussing having watched it at home, but it was something about this in-between space that generated discomfort, the guilty feeling of doing something in private in public. It’s a curious thing, and it works both ways.
Light-emitting screens are naturally attention grabbing – our eyes divert to them almost instinctually when they pop up in our field of vision. It is for this reason that texting during a movie is terribly disruptive (and some have even recently taken this annoyance to tragic extremes). In eight years of commuting on New York subways, I’ve seen and read countless text messages to and from people sitting or standing next to me. Small glimpses into the lives of strangers that feel more intimate than an overheard cell phone conversation. If one of these texters were to glance up and catch me in the act, would I feel guilt or would rather they feel the same uneasiness I felt on the bus? Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps it’s a welcome consequence of our desire to retreat into smaller and smaller virtual worlds of microprivacy that we come back into the public realm with a certain embarrassment, like waking up after being caught napping during class.