“OK, so we’re physically cutting ourselves off from one another -- is that really the worst thing in the world? Maybe we’re truly connecting over the internet anyway.”
Uh no, dork, batting five-word texts back and forth over the course of a few hours is not emotionally connecting like a simple two-minute conversation, voice-to-voice or, God forbid, face-to-face. And it doesn't answer the original charge of being anti-social -- even if you were connecting normally with the person you're texting while riding the subway, you're still closing yourself off from everyone else on the damn subway, and blocking out your surroundings when walking down the street, sitting in a coffee shop, etc.
This response is obvious and persuasive to all normal people, so that the cheerleaders of cocooning have taken a new approach to attempting to normalize abnormal social behavior -- “people used to act this way before.” How warped could such behavior be, if it had persisted for so long during an earlier time?
Here is an item by some airhead opinion writer expressing the new approach, referring to “old pictures” that show subway riders staring down at their newspapers rather than engaging one another in conversation. Nothing new to see with the phones-everywhere trend, just a contempo variation on a timeless theme, so move along folks, back to your cyber-cocoons and man-caves.
The writer must be a Millennial if she doesn’t remember the ‘80s, and is left to speculate what the past was like by lazy Googling rather than asking someone who knew, which would’ve quickly set her straight. (Real-life contact wins again.) It’s striking, though, how little awareness Millennials have of the past even from mediated sources like TV, movies, and pop music. Where are they getting the image of subway riders staring at newspapers?
In fairness, they may be thinking further back to the Midcentury, when public cocooning was in fact common. This is giving them too much credit for being aware of the world before they were born, but I can’t think of a better way to get to the snapshots of earlier cocooning periods that the title of this post promised.
First, here is a collection of complaints from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, when cocooning was reaching its peak before folks started to socialize and connect more during the Ragtime and Jazz Age. One complains about people using newspapers as distracters and fencer-off-ers while they sulk around on public transit. Sound familiar? But notice again how the complaints trail off during the 1910s and are gone by the Roaring Twenties.
But the Jazz Age wouldn’t last forever. Here are some “old pictures” showing Midcentury subway riders, who are indeed wrapped up in their own private little worlds despite being packed in like sardines, using a mass media product to focus their attention no further than their personal space and to physically fence themselves off from their fellow travelers.
These pictures do disprove the idea that we are forced into cocooning nowadays because of technological changes. Folks in the ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t need portable electronics, let alone web browsers, to isolate themselves in public. It goes the other way around -- there’s a change in the social mood, and people use whatever is available to further their new goals. Back then, it was newspapers, now it’s devices for web-surfing and texting.
But what happens when the mood changes, and people don’t feel like cocooning anymore? Hard as it is to remember, there was just such a time in the not too distant past.* All of a sudden, newspaper-starer-at-ers become rare on the subway, and appear to be mostly members of the Silent Generation (the Millennials of their day), whose formative years were shaped by Midcentury cocooning. The pictures below were a thing a few years ago -- “Woah, look how different the New York subway used to be!” -- but even the past five years are too long to remember for people who want no connection to people other than themselves.
Not only did these people have newspapers still available, they had paperback books and toward the end of the period, portable stereos, casette players, and CD players. Yet, it looks nothing like the world 15 to 20 years later, when everyone would be locked into their book, iPod, or smartphone:
True, people from the '70s and '80s are not engaging each other in lively conversation -- they’re strangers riding mass transit in a high-density hive of alienation. It is unrealistic to expect them to chat as though they were suburban dwellers recognizing one another at church.
And yet, they’re at least giving each other their undivided attention. They don’t appear to be focusing on anything in particular, and are “leaving the door open” like college freshmen do when they’re waiting for someone to invite them to something somewhere.
They look unsettled because of the rising crime rate and the growing sense that nothing could be done about it, that you just had to get used to it and cope with it as best as you could, of course with the support of others, who were going through the same situations themselves. Most of them are looking through a thousand-yard stare even inside of a narrow subway car.
If you look through “old pictures” or old videos from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, you’re struck by how dissociative the people look, talk, and move. Not necessarily glum, as on the subway, but just focused outwards and not monitoring the self inside. Every moment looks like it was an out-of-body experience. See this video clip of the Jersey Shore from 1994, thanks to a commenter from awhile ago, and this post and the gallery in the first link, showing the mall culture circa 1990.
Perhaps the tiny uptick in complaints about web browsers everywhere is a signal that the cocooning trend will bottom out in the next five years or so. The complaints of the late Victorian era set the stage for the more outgoing climate of Jazz Age, just as the complaints of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Feminine Mystique heralded the more outgoing clmiate of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
It’s not an attitude that can be forced to speed up the process. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open to see when others start showing signs that they’re ready to connect again after hibernating for so long.
* Those who were there have managed to block it out because of all the “awkward!” memories they have of more free-wheeling times, while Millennials refuse to explore that time more out of resentment over missing the boat. It’s more than mere incuriosity (though lord knows that’s another defining trait of theirs). They feel gipped that their whole upbringing has been full of lies about how the world would explode if they didn’t wear two bike helmets or didn’t let their parents know where they were going for the day.