Smartphones and tablets absorb the attention of today’s commuters. But does that mean they aren’t ‘in the moment’ – and what are device-less passengers doing instead?

Board any bus or train today and you’ll be surrounded by suited commuters, peering at the slab of glass and metal in their hands. Perhaps more than any other place, public transport is where technology has a truly captive audience.

And yet many of us have a nagging sense that this reliance on our phones is, somehow, damaging. It’s why videos like Look Up, which insist that we would be better off offline, go viral. It’s also why so many people found the #guywithoutaphone picture so funny when it was posted to Twitter. After all, hardly anyone would get on a train these days without a phone in their hand.

In 2009, BBC News Magazine contributor (now BBC Future associate editor) Stephen Dowling approached passengers on a London train who were not occupied with an iPod or newspaper and asked what they were doing instead. The answers ranged from practicing yoga breathing to thinking about a sister in hospital. But what is the situation now, more than five years later? Do people like this even exist anymore? And if so, what are they thinking?

On a cloudy Thursday morning, commuters on London Underground’s Metropolitan line are still heading into city offices, despite the peak of the rush hour having subsided. The journey begins above ground at Wembley Park; an urban landscape stretches around us as far as the eye can see. But the vast majority of passengers, of course, aren’t taking it in. They are looking down at their phones.

For nine hours a day, I’m sitting in front of a monitor

Not Rahul Giri, 38. He sits alone, silent, looking through the window and at the world beyond. “I’m an IT professional. For nine hours I’m sitting in front of a monitor,” he says. “That’s enough for me!” Sometimes Giri checks emails on his BlackBerry; otherwise, he prefers to relax on the train.

Mike Deerman, 66, is similar. “I’m waiting for phone calls to come in,” he explains as he taps his jacket pocket. The last stretch of the Metropolitan line is underground, but there are frequent sections where no roof overhead means that it is possible to briefly get a signal. “It keeps cutting out. That is an issue,” says Deerman, who works in telecoms infrastructure. But as much as he likes to be contactable, the thought of engrossing himself in a smartphone or tablet screen is of no appeal. The same goes for those listening to music. “I’m dismayed by these people that have their ears in. They never read a book, they don’t keep up with current affairs, they’re just listening to their music or whatever,” he says.

At Baker Street, the Metropolitan line joins the oldest stretch of the entire Underground network. There have been trains running here since 1863. Jonathan Ham, 54, makes this part of the journey almost every day. And he likes to absorb it.

“Sometimes I listen to music. But I prefer to think on the Tube or just observe people,” he says. As a biologist, Ham occasionally reads a scientific paper on the train. “But I’m feeling a bit dull this morning!” he admits.

The people he sees are invariably unlike him in the sense that, for them, the train is the perfect place to turn to their devices. “People seem really wrapped up in their phones and tablets,” he notes. “I find that slightly disturbing, actually. I’m quite old-school. I’m quite strict about it. I don’t even have email at home. And I have a computer at home but it’s not networked – I do that at work,” he says. “If I need to get to email then of course I can do it through my phone, but I’ve set it up so it’s a little bit difficult to do.”

A culture of hyperdistraction

Those who lament the distracting qualities of the smartphone and promote “offlining” have found receptive audiences recently. One such person is writer and English professor Tom Montgomery Fate, of Chicago’s College of DuPage.

“I’ve seen a growing diminishment in my students’ capacity to read and pay attention that I think parallels the growth of technology,” he says. “I’m frustrated that our communication can’t be direct. You can’t see the world if you’re looking down all the time; if you’re preoccupied.”

Fate bemoans what he calls our “always-new culture of hyperdistraction”. He recently gave in, however, and bought his first smartphone in order to make video calls to his daughter, who is studying in Madrid.

There’s a belief, and indeed a smattering of evidence to support it, that “living in the moment” makes us feel better. But as many commuters on the Tube point out, you can use your phone to achieve this, too.

My phone’s dead. I’m thinking about how I can get my charger

“I need something to do and obviously watching something on iPlayer or listening to music is more relaxing,” explains Katie Walker, 29, as the train pulls into Barbican. She has only just switched off her device, a programme she was watching having finished in time for her to get off the train. Another traveller explains she would be using her phone, except that she has run out of lives in the game Candy Crush and opted to take a break.

Sometimes, of course, technology forces us to take in our surroundings. Sinead Dennig, 24, can’t help but laugh as she explains why she’s sitting unoccupied. “My phone’s dead!” she says as the train approaches Liverpool Street, its penultimate stop. “I’m thinking about how I can get the charger. I need to go home, get the charger, charge it, and then come back… I’m meeting a friend but I could have met her now if I didn’t have to go home and charge my phone.”

Unexpectedly deviceless, Dennig is left to take in her surroundings. “It’s just nice to sit,” she comments. “I was going to take my book out and read it but, no, I’m too tired. I just want to sit here. Sit and do nothing!”

Around her, a carriage full of phone-wielding passengers pays no attention. In some ways, it’s the perfect place to enjoy being alone.

We’re never really just in the moment – Jenny Davis

Jenny Davis is assistant professor of sociology at James Madison University in Virginia. To her, the idea that there is a dichotomy between the people who use technology on the train and those who don’t sounds like a false binary.

“In urban spaces, there are so many stimuli going on that when we’re in public we always isolate and make ourselves alone,” she explains. “We always pay attention to our proverbial devices, whether that be our thoughts, a newspaper, or whatever, we’ve always been alone together in urban spaces.”

The comment chimes neatly with the viral photo of commuters on what appears to be a 1940s or 1950s train carriage, each one of them with their head-buried in a newspaper. “All this technology is making us anti-social” reads the wry caption.

“We’re never really just ‘in the moment’,” says Davis. “When we’re engaged in a present interaction, we’re always calling forth our personal histories, old experiences and thinking toward the future.”

So perhaps there’s no great lesson here after all. It’s certainly true that commuters on the Metropolitan line all seem to have a simple, pragmatic reason for whatever they’re doing. One woman, Ninu Arghard, 23, holds her phone in her hand, though the screen is dark and she’s not, at the moment, using it. “I just wanted to look around,” she says nonchalantly. “You can’t be on your phone 24/7 – it does get boring sometimes.”

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