Asking Strangers Questions – A Preemptive Eulogy

Strangers still ask me questions. Usually the questions are about directions, and I usually stutter and stammer giving useless and imprecise instructions that culminate in me pointing toward a rough point on the horizon and saying “that way.”

I am new to New York. These strangers should see how loose my jeans are, realize how un-native I am, and not ask me.

But the truth is my familiarity with the area shouldn’t affect by ability to give directions. My direct knowledge of the area only matters because I don’t own a smartphone.

The strangers who ask me for directions have that in common. They don’t own smartphones either. If they did, they wouldn’t need to ask for directions. They would be getting effortlessly from place to place via algorithm generated vectors and coordinates, their journeys data sets ready for analytical compilation and review.

Sure, sometimes the technology fails, or you don’t have access to it, or it leads you somewhere wrong. But these are only growing pains that will be rectified soon enough, like bed wetting or drawing on walls. We are in the infancy of the information age. If you don’t trust the map on your phone, it’s not because the concept isn’t good, it’s because you don’t trust it to sleep through the night or be left alone with crayons in a white-walled room.

The point is the time when we get directions from other people is almost over.

I ask people for directions sometimes. Sometimes I emerge from underneath the pavement out of the subway exit and I’m disoriented, unable to find a cardinal landmark I can use to start the lyrical reminder to Never Eat Shredded Wheat, and therefore, unable to figure out where I’m going, assuming I even know an address, or what direction my destination is in relative to the subway exit.

So I ask strangers for directions. If they don’t know, they pull out their phones and look it up for me, and while I wait (only a few seconds and getting shorter with each new iPhone release) I excuse myself for not having a smartphone, or I lie and say its dead.

I am a 21st century hitchhiker, depending on the kindness and technology of strangers to get to where I want to go.

As someone who has hitchhiked the old-fashioned way, let me tell you: when you’re standing on the side of a highway, thumb out, and you make eye contact with a passing driver through that windshield, that windshield feels like a thousand miles between you and that driver, it feels like a mortgage, a swimming pool, a trust fund, being called “sir,” it feels like two tax brackets and wine knowledge, it feels like all of that and the judgment that goes with it.

People stop, and obviously not everyone who has a car is rich. But that’s what it feels like.

Soon asking people for directions will feel like that too.

Years from now, when the last of the baby boomers have either adapted to smartphones and finally figure out how to type with their thumbs, or when they are just gone, and when obsolete iPhones are being handed out like after dinner mints, and when they figure out how to keep cell phones charged at all times, asking someone for directions will be the same as declaring:

“I’m too poor to own a smartphone.”

If you are well-dressed enough to convey a certain class status, that status being comfortably above the unwilling luddites of the lower class, people will respond to requests for directions with:

“Did your phone die?”

As of now, everyone gives directions. That is, just about no one refuses to answer the request, whether they know the answer or not. That’s because answering requests for directions is part of the basic social contract. But when access to smartphones become ubiquitous to all but the untouchables, will there be a point where providing directions moves from social nicety to charity? And if so, will people refuse to answer that question, will people ignore it the way anyone looking poor enough asking a question or starting a conversation is ignored? Will the very act of asking directions mean that the person must, by the fact their question betrays a lack of essentials, want something from the one being asked beyond the stated? Will the follow up question automatically be about money?

You want to know where the nearest Starbucks is? Get a fucking job.

I’ll admit that this all seems like pretty meaningless speculation until you consider that directions are just the most common kind of information that we can gather from strangers without feeling intrusive or making anyone uncomfortable. But there are other types as well, other questions we ask strangers from time to time in order to gather objective information.

Consider that with smartphones, we have the entire human knowledge library in our pockets, which, to paraphrase Louis C.K, is a fucking miracle, one that makes the printing press look like a blue ribbon entry in the science fair.

So when will asking questions seeking objective answers disappear altogether?

With all of the world’s information a finger stroke away, how can we continue to justify asking someone about the weather, or the score of the game, or where the subway goes? (And don’t worry, there will be network access in all subway stations soon enough).

How soon before asking someone for information becomes an obvious ploy to start a conversation?

But outside of trying to hit on people at bars, when do you ever need ploys? We don’t really speak to the strangers around us all that often anymore because we don’t have to. We are never bored enough to have to make conversation with strangers, unless we are at some party where the point is to meet people. We play with our phones on buses and in line, and when we are lonely we can call up anyone we know, because everyone has a phone on them, and everyone is reachable.

We are eliminating the space between us and our friends, and the space between our questions and the knowledge that those questions seek, thanks to the direct line we have to the group consciousness that we carry in our pockets.

But what used to occupy that space between us and our friends and between our questions and their answers was other people, strangers who might have the information we are seeking, who might provide conversation on a boring train ride, who might tell you about the hidden gem in the neighborhood you are in, who might even become a friend.

The problem is you can’t map your way to serendipity.

Strangers still ask me questions. I’m dreading the day I’ll judge them for it.

I’m dreading the day they’ll stop asking even more.

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One thought on “Asking Strangers Questions – A Preemptive Eulogy

  1. Barbara Keefe says:

    This piece is entertaining, beautifully written and a brilliant commentary on both human nature and technology’s impact on our society. Thank You Beerman! Well Done!!!!!

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