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When left to their devices…


We ambled from school down Broadway and then through Soho and Chinatown (returning via Astor Place on the subway) at lunchtime on a Wednesday. We stopped for lunch at an outdoor taquería halfway through the exercise with the intention to write up our hastily scribbled notes, but it ended up being the richest part of our safari. People when left to their devices…

WHAT: Man using ATM
WHEN & WHERE: 12 pm: Chase bank on the corner of Houston and Broadway
APPARENT INTENT: To get money out, probably for lunch
TIME TAKEN: About a minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for swiping the card and interacting with the touchscreen, eyes for reading the screen

WHAT: Two men using a Blackberry and an iPhone while waiting for a table at La Esquina
WHEN & WHERE: 12.14 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
APPARENT INTENT: Checking email to while away the wait and avoid awkward conversation; they appeared to be colleagues rather than friends
TIME TAKEN: About a minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 2, though each was using his device separately
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Sight and hands

WHAT: A man strumming an iPhone running a guitar emulation app for the delight of his friends, one of whom was taking a picture of the scene on his own iPhone and another who was simply holding his
WHEN & WHERE: 12.29 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
APPARENT INTENT: To amuse
TIME TAKEN: 20 seconds
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 strummer, 1 photographer, 1 appreciative observer
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for strumming and photographing and grasping, sight for operating the camera and appreciating the sight gag, ears for hearing the sound of the shutter and the virtual guitar

WHAT: Waiter using an outdoor cash register
WHEN & WHERE: 12.44 pm: La Esquina, Kenmare St.
APPARENT INTENT: To enter a sale and get somebody’s check
TIME TAKEN: Several seconds-long bursts of action
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 operator, around 20 or 30 people providing “data.”
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for punching in numbers and making change, eyes for reading the display

WHAT: Two guys in helmets and harnesses getting lowered from a billboard in a wobbly cherry picker
WHEN & WHERE: 12.47 pm: Corner of Centre Market Place and Broome
APPARENT INTENT: To get down from the billboard where they’d just replaced an ad without dying
TIME TAKEN: Five minutes from when we arrived
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 operator manning the controls from the ground, 2 guys dangling precariously at his mercy
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Manual dexterity for controlling the cherry picker, spatial perception, feet, balance, hearing to communicate from the ground to the billboard

WHAT: Courier using a fancy intercom system and calling on his phone from in front of an office building
WHEN & WHERE: 12.51 pm: Grand and Lafayette
APPARENT INTENT: To enter the building to make a delivery (when the doorbell didn’t work, he tried calling; eventually he went in the door when somebody came out)
TIME TAKEN: 50 seconds
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: In theory 2
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Fingers for punching the button, eyes for identifying the right one, speaking and hearing to communicate across the intercom (both users)

WHAT: A man taking a digital photo of his girlfriend standing beneath a street sign
WHEN & WHERE: 12.53 pm: Canal and Lafayette
APPARENT INTENT: To record a memory and proof of visiting a location
TIME TAKEN: 10 seconds
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 2
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands to operate the camera and eyes to frame the picture

WHAT: Man with luggage struggling with the card reader on a subway turnstile
WHEN & WHERE: 1.04 pm: Canal Street subway
APPARENT INTENT: To get through the turnstile and catch a train
TIME TAKEN: Around a minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 initially until he was joined by a cop who helped him
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for sliding card, ears for hearing card reader feedback, sight for looking at the display, voice for swearing

WHAT: A man playing an electric guitar and singing House of the Rising Sun
WHEN & WHERE: 1.15 pm: Astor Place subway
APPARENT INTENT: To entertain, to make some spare change, to enjoy himself, to make himself heard over loud trains
TIME TAKEN: We watched for 4 minutes
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 plus an active audience of 3 and a passive audience of around 20
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for playing and adjusting knobs, voice for singing, hearing

WHAT: Man refilling Metrocard
WHEN & WHERE: 1.19 pm: Astor Place subway
APPARENT INTENT: To add money to his Metrocard
TIME TAKEN: 20 seconds
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands and eyes for interacting with the touchscreen

WHAT: Alex setting off anti-theft alarm at Walgreen’s
WHEN & WHERE: 1.23 pm: Astor Place Walgreen’s
APPARENT INTENT: None (though taking something without paying was initially suspected)
TIME TAKEN: 1 minute
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 plus the cashier that waved him through
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Ears for hearing the alarm

WHAT: Escalade pumping really loud hip-hop
WHEN & WHERE: 12.40 pm: Broadway right outside of Tisch
APPARENT INTENT: To draw attention, to feel skull vibrate, to share musical taste with others
TIME TAKEN: A minute or so before the light changed and he zoomed off
# OF PEOPLE INVOLVED: 1 driver, 2 passengers, and a block worth of pedestrians
REQUISITE MOTOR SKILLS: Hands for tuning the radio and turning up the volume, sight to see the display, hearing

In addition, there are a couple of technological interactions we quickly gave up recording on a case by case basis as they were ubiquitous.

The first was anything to do with talking on the phone. A good thirty percent of the people we passed on the street were either talking on their phones or looking at them intently or just holding them. Their intentions varied from killing time to checking the exact location of a meeting to catching up with a friend or colleague to complaining to just having something in their hands. The most interesting thing we noted was that people wearing watches routinely checked the time on their phones rather than on their wrists.

Phones were plentiful but digital music players were even more so. It seemed that anyone who was walking alone was wearing earbuds and bopping alone to a private beat. The primary intention in this case was to replace the harsh sounds of the city with a mellifluous soundtrack of choice, though we suspected an ulterior intention to signal that the wearer was not to be disturbed.

At every intersection we crossed, we and everyone else interacted with traffic lights. The traffic lights were interpreted by most pedestrians as a suggestion for caution when crossing rather than a steadfast directive. The motorists fortunately favored the latter interpretation. Interactions varied from quick glances to long hateful stares, and in one case, to a disproportionately hateful stream of invective.

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