Filter Bubbles and Close Encounters: Reflections on City Life

“Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.”― Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I’m coming up on the one year anniversary of my move to New York City, and have been thinking a lot about how where we live impacts our perspective on life and how we interact with the people around us. I just finished reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. The premise of Odell’s book is that “in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity…doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance.”

One of her recommendations for regaining control of our attention, wresting it back from our technologically dominated, capitalist society, is to pay closer attention to place. The “lived environment,” the one inhabited by human beings, plants, and animals, that cannot be completely controlled by algorithms and brands, presents an opportunity to find our way back to ourselves and to one another. Odell warns us about the danger of what she calls “filter bubbles.” These are spheres of attention and interaction created for us by social media. In these bubbles, we primarily connect with people much like ourselves: who share common interests and friends, think similarly to us, and keep us bound in an endless echo chamber.

How easy it is, she argues, to travel through our lives never really seeing the strangers around us. Even imagining them as real people with their own complex thoughts and motivations sometimes feels out of reach. She writes, “Geographical proximity is different, placing us near people we have no ‘obvious’ instrumental reason to care about.” She notes that most of us only break out of our filter bubbles when we’re forced to do so. A city bus, she notes, is one of the last spaces where a diverse group of strangers are thrown together for a common purpose but with little else in common (at least on the surface).

This got me thinking about (what else?) the New York City subway. When I first started taking the subway, I was actually astonished how civil and organized the process was given the sheer number of people commuting in and out of the city every day. The occasional incident notwithstanding, people mostly moved quietly up and down stairways and onto trains, making room where needed and accepting the inevitable delays with no more than an eye roll or sigh. There’s a sense that everyone is in it together, the invisible forces behind public transit functioning as a great equalizer.

Despite this unity of experience (and misery) created by the MTA, the subway can also be a space where filter bubbles become even more impenetrable. Initially I feared that New York was making me into more of a “bubble person.” Living in crowded spaces can have the unfortunate effect of making you see other people as obstacles rather than as living, breathing beings. The old woman walking slowly up the subway stairs, the young man diving in front of me for a seat: all obstacles to be avoided. This framework was reinforced by advice from friends who’d been in the city longer than I had: look straight ahead, don’t talk to strangers, don’t make eye contact. So I put my earbuds in and stare at my phone, terrified of the eventual moment when a stranger will speak to me (or, god forbid, ask something of me).

I once stared at a homeless man on the L Train lying across several seats, swaddled in layers of clothing, apparently dead to the world. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing, and yet I did nothing to intervene. I silently prayed that someone else would have the courage to gently shake this man and ask him if he needed help. Why didn’t I act? While waking a sleeping stranger comes with a certain amount of physical risk, it seemed like the right thing to do. And yet I was paralyzed. It’s a rare person who can confidently intervene in the face of human despair. But isn’t that our responsibility to one another? Does it matter if you’re a 5’4″ woman or a linebacker when it comes to giving aid?

In many places, but in New York especially, our filter bubble becomes a shield. In this mode, we have what Odell and others refer to as an “I-It” relationship with our fellow humans: we see them as objects. The opposite of such self-absorption is the “I-Thou” relationship, where we see each stranger as a divine being with a complete soul and agency. Of course, it’s easier to have an “I-Thou” relationship with the people close to us. To extend this grace to strangers takes the type of attention that David Foster Wallace (who Odell also cites in her book) describes in his perspective-shattering graduation speech-turned-essay “This Is Water“: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

The irony of living in New York is that it’s forced me outside of my filter bubble more often than any other place I’ve lived, not always of my own volition. Even with headphones in and gaze focused straight ahead, this city throws me in the path of an infinity variety of people in the course of a single day. From the momentary intimacy of being closer than a lover to a random person on a crowded train to the extended (but no less fraught) intimacy of sharing apartments with complete strangers, it’s impossible to stay in “I-It” mode for too long. This is important because (as Odell points out) if we truly need help we are more likely to get it from our neighbors than our Twitter followers.

Sometimes these moments of forced attention to strangers are deeply unsettling, such as when I watched a woman berate her toddler daughter on the train platform. In my former life I could have left the store, gotten into my car, closed my door. But here I had to hold space with this woman cursing at a screaming child. I had to confront not only my own humanity and that of the little girl, but also the exhausted, overwhelmed, and furious mother (and my immediate instinct to judge and shame her). But the city also sparks thousands of small moments of beautiful human connection and generosity.

Moreover, in a city where my first instinct is to shore up my personal defenses and become a tightly contained unit as I move through my day, I’ve actually found some of my “I-thou-iest” relationships. The difficulty of living in this expensive, dense, complex environment bonds people together in a way I’ve never experienced before. Mentioning a problem at work, from mice in my apartment to my lack of furniture, leads to a flood of tips and suggestions from not only my coworkers but their bosses. A year of living in New York becomes a cause for celebration, and five years deserving of a medal. And through my work at a nonprofit, I’ve become aware of the thousands of people who are struggling with homelessness, hunger, and poverty. I’m unable to ignore the disparities between rich and poor in a city that can’t hide its wounds behind closed doors. I’ve become paradoxically both more empathetic and self-protective because there’s no other way to survive here.

In our journey from friendship to romance, I know my boyfriend and I were aided by the shared experience of city life. Here, it’s even more important to have someone to come home to, to help you move, to complain to, to problem solve with, and to create a space that feels loving and safe together. More than just a romantic partner, he’s my home, my escape, my oasis. He’s someone who belongs to me and to whom I belong, who makes the city feel personal and intimate and fully alive with beauty and possibility.

The same bonding occurs with strangers as well. Locked out of my apartment last summer, the man working at my corner bodega literally lent me his shoes so I could walk over to my boyfriend’s house to get my spare keys. A friend of a friend heard I had been sleeping on an air mattress and arranged to give me her old IKEA one for free. People characterize New Yorkers as rude, but the truth is that most people are simply impatient. Getting through a day here takes fortitude and the ability to close yourself off to a portion of the constant stimulation and noise. They may not have time or patience for small talk, but if you are truly in crisis, New Yorkers will come to your aid.

Sure, the city can be lonely. It’s easy to imagine that everyone you know has more friends than you, is doing more glamorous things on the weekends, and is doing a better job making the most of living here. But the reality is that I’ve felt less lonely here than I have anywhere else, and I credit that to the way that NYC has popped my filter bubble in challenging, exciting, horrifying and wonderful ways. In creating a common lived experience (at least for the 98% of us who aren’t billionaires) it’s very difficult to pretend that you’re the only person in the world who matters or has a valid existence.

Rebecca Solnit, another favorite author, writes, “We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.” I feel privileged to live among thousands of stories, in a place that itself is a story, full of chance encounters and unexpected side trips. This is especially true on days where I make a concentrated effort to truly see the people around me, to bear witness to the narratives of which I am only a small part. To reclaim my attention from the lifeless echo chamber of screens and the repeating loops of my own thoughts and direct it towards the vast and varied tangle of stories that are everywhere around me. To remember that the bubble around me is insubstantial, made only of soap and rainbows, and not a solid barrier between myself and the world.

Published by adventuresofaschmidiot

Writer, media scholar, feminist. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD and hope to document my "journey of becoming" as I approach 30.

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