Saturday, 23 July 2011

Bubble Syndrome

An amazing insight struck me recently, though I admit that to others it may seem blindingly obvious. In a nutshell, it's what I like to think of as the ‘bubble syndrome’ in travel. Essentially, this means that when we travel we like to occupy our own little bubble, alone or at most with intimate friends or family.

I noticed this not in a car, where it’s perhaps most evident, but in a train. The public nature of train travel seems to make creating a bubble impossible, so it's all the more obvious when we try to build one anyway. And it became particularly clear to me because I deliberately punctured it.

The instrument for this piece of sociological research – carried out at no charge, you’ll notice, and with the results made immediately and freely available on the internet – was the sneeze. Whenever anyone near me sneezes, I immediately say ‘bless you’

Reactions are varied and interesting. Occasionally, I’ll get eye contact, a smile and a ‘thank you’

Sometimes I get grunted thanks and averted eyes.

Most frequently, I get a tilting of the head, a half glance but no eye contact. The message is clear: though the sneezer feels obliged to recognise my good wishes, he or she nonetheless wants me to understand hat they are an inappropriate and therefore unwelcome intrusion into the virtual bubble they have created around their personal space.

To be fair, I’m just as inveterate an offender in this respect as anyone else. The moment I get on a train, I get my laptop out and bury myself in it until it’s time to leave again. The only time I didn’t do that recently was when the laptop battery was flat, in a train without power points. I got chatting with a fellow passenger and was far better entertained as a result for the whole of a four-hour journey. Why, I even got a new Facebook friend out of it (hi there, by the way, in case you’re reading this). But despite that good experience, I still resort systematically to the laptop defence and keep contact with other passengers to a bare minimum. Only if they sneeze, in the main.

Having established the existence of the syndrome in trains, one can see how well it applies to cars. Little cocoons, they provide precisely the kind of bubble we need for travel pleasure. Which is presumably why we go on using them in such massive and growing numbers, even though it may cost us the planet – and travelling by car is one of the most dangerous things we do. Death is ever-present on the road, but leaves little trace in society: a bunch of flowers on a roadside, perhaps, telling us that someone somewhere is grieving, but leaving the rest us barely affected.
Tribute to an anonymous road crash victim
A tragedy for a few, a matter of indifference for most 
In Britain, we’re delighted that road traffic deaths are down to half what they were in the nineties – but that’s still nearly 2000 a year. It means that every eighteen months we kill more people than died in the 9/11 attacks. And yet soceity isn't traumatised by these losses, we don’t launch wars and spend trillions to avert the ever-present threat that the car represents. A war on traffic  alongside the war on terror? It would make just as much sense, surely.

But far from attacking the car, we keep indulging our passion for it. And we do so as far as possible in private, in our little bubble. Strange, isn’t it? After all, the other things we do in private are associated either with erotic pleasure or with the elimination of waste.

Cars are certainly supremely wasteful. But do they provide us with some kind of near-orgasmic pleasure as well?


Awoogamuffin said...

I think that beyond the deaths, cars cause us misery by influencing our decisions regarding where we live - our desire for another, bigger bubble out in the suburbs means we become dependent on these machines and spend 10 hours a week commuting, which does nothing to add to our quality of life. I'd be a happy man if I can go through my life working somewhere within walking / metro distance (and under half an hour).

If we had more cities, but smaller, this would be a reality for more people, but because of the car we have these huge nexuses with the denizens living in areas sprawling out in every direction, causing congestion, pollution and boredom.

David Beeson said...

It frightens me to think that I can only keep my commuting down to under ten hours by not going into the office a couple of days a week - but I travel by train...