I’ve noticed something about Sydney over the last few weeks. I’m not sure if it’s just frequency illusion, having observed it a few times and in turn I’ve become more and more aware. It feels like it’s more than that, something that is coloring my view of this place at this time. It’s certainly not endemic to Sydney, but I am finding that here, more than most cities, being plugged in is the norm.
I fall into a weird grey area when it comes to phones and technology. On one hand, I use it frequently, and it’s a huge boost to my practice and industry. However, it eats time like no other and the repercussions of constant screen time are proving to be problematic. It seems fitting to quote someone I follow on Instagram, who recently said “who else is kind of tired of being on social media, but can’t leave social media?” That idea alone could make up an entire blog post, but this site is about Australia, not necessarily my own moral conundrums.
I find that people here seem fixated on screens, predominantly cell phones. I realize part of my shock comes from my newness here, how fresh this place is. Maybe it also has a tiny bit to do with being a photographer. I’m constantly confused as to why people aren’t looking up and around at the beauty of this city. Every corner I turn, even the same ones I walked yesterday, brings something new and exciting into my day.
And yet people are walking around this place like zombies. I realize that sounds hyperbolic, but I promise I’m being serious. Not just talking on the phone, but watching full on shows and movies, or facetiming. Not only while waiting for the bus or lounging in the park, but most often while walking down the street en route to somewhere else. It’s shocking, and though I’ve noticed it time and time again I can’t shake my utter surprise each time I see, and am nearly run down by, someone doing it.
Sometimes it is eerily quiet on the roads, as people pass by with their faux airpods in, eyes glued to the small screen in front of them. There is little conversation if any, just rows and rows of people moving through this physical space while simultaneously through a digital one.
I’ve been comparing Sydney to other big cities I’ve visited, and maybe I just haven’t spent long enough chunks of time in those places to truly know it. But I find this particular aspect of Sydney puzzling and concerning, a part of the culture I hadn’t anticipated and am not at all on board with.
That, and how infrequently people move over to let you pass when walking.
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I initially wrote this post on the 12th of March, but have had it sitting on my computer since. Part of me felt like maybe everyone back home wouldn’t care about this as content, and I was also slightly nervous that I might offend someone who thinks I’m accusing Australia of having a screen problem. I think by this point most of us know the entire world has a screen problem, so local Aussies, please know I’m not pointing the finger at you.
I’m finding the longer I’m here, the less I think it’s anything particularly cultural or endemic to Sydney, but instead hypothesise it’s just the fact that I’m in a major tourist city at all. A friend recently reminded me that most New Yorkers avoid places like Times Square for this exact reason – it’s impossible to move through these spaces in a normal way while everyone around you is experiencing it as a tourist.
I hold no grudges against tourists, and in many ways I still feel like one myself. I frequently stop to take photos of any and everything, and yes, I STILL get excited when we pass by the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
But I also have self-awareness, and recognize that hundreds and thousands of other people are having these moments too. Maybe it’s because my stay here is past a week while everyone else is coming and going, and sometimes that makes it feel like Groundhog Day. Even my tourist behaviours are becoming a routine. So I try my best to shuffle over to the side and out of the way of everyone living their normal lives, going for a run or riding their bike. And yet I find myself multiple times a day unable to get around a group of tourists who have blocked the entire sidewalk to take a selfie, or someone who cannot find their opal card and has decided the best place to look for it is directly in front of the turnstile, or a uni student who is so absorbed in his Netflix show WHILE WALKING THROUGH THE PARK that he has slowed his pace to the point of essentially no longer having any forward momentum.
Yes, I’m annoyed. And yet I’m also mad at myself for being annoyed. It’s such a silly thing, and if anything I should feel a sense of sadness for the people who are constantly plugged in, and happiness for all the people who are coming to this city and learning to love it too - even in a big, obnoxious, selfie-taking way.
I’m trying to accept the good and the bad, and know that in 8 months time I’ll be headed back to a non-city city, one that’s smallish and quiet and nothing stays open past 9 o’clock. There won’t be anybody sleepwalking on the sidewalk in front of me, because not much of Bristol is all that walkable and it will be December in New England (AKA: Hoth).
I think this is the point where I wrap this up with some words of wisdom, right? So here’s what I have so far: don’t listen to what the Internet tells you, be a tourist. Enjoy the place you’re in with reckless abandon, and don’t be ashamed to see any and everything and take pictures along the way. And that goes for whether you’re on vacation or not – get your head out of your phone, and appreciate your surroundings, as grand or as simple as you may think them. But please, have some common sense. Know there’s approximately 5 million other people around you, and some of them are just trying to make their bus.