I rode a Trailways bus from Iowa City to Chicago's Near West Side Greyhound station two weekends ago. I was traveling to my past and future home city to give a presentation on the state of American politics to the Open University of the Left.
For four hours, most of my fellow passengers alternated between nodding off and performing various actions -- texting, talking, surfing the internet -- with their smartphones and computers.
Except for a middle-aged man who briefly looked at a Bible, not a single other passenger that I could see read anything in print -- a book, a magazine or a newspaper.
A young woman sitting next to me spent the bulk of the journey swiping through online cartoons on her phone.
A woman sitting two rows ahead spoke loudly on her cellphone about her love life to a series of people whose disinterest was audible.
A young man across the aisle from me typed madly on his laptop. He was interacting with people on Facebook. A conversation partner appeared on the screen, followed by a "Star Wars" movie trailer.
Conversation was minimal between passengers, most of whom wore ear devices connecting them to the cyberworld as the bus hurtled past farm fields and exit ramps.
The driver, himself fitted with an earbud, did not speak to his riders. Video screens blared a safety video warning that "assaulting" or being "aggressive to the driver" would lead to being "prosecuted to the full of extent of local, state, and federal law." A shiny black surveillance ball glowered at us from above the front window. Two of the passengers wore electronic monitoring bracelets around their ankles.
I was reminded of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451." In Bradbury's dreaded future, a totalitarian police state abolished books, established widespread electronic surveillance, and delivered propaganda and childish entertainment culture to atomized and spectacular police-state images and sounds through glowing flat telescreens and "thimble" and "seashell radios" attached to people's ears. The novel portrayed people speaking to distant "friends" through a "digital wall" -- the same terminology that Facebook would use years later for the digital hub that enables friends to post and see messages.
"The loneliness that can come from constantly paying attention to the screens around you, rather than the life around you," wrote one Washington Post commentator after Bradbury died five years ago, was "a prevalent theme in Bradbury's work."
We arrived at the Chicago terminal, where travelers were monitored by police and private security guards, some wearing bulletproof vests. Surveillance cameras were ubiquitous.
Six large telescreens tilted down above the crowd, blaring CNN coverage of the plutocratic Republican tax bill soon to be signed, despite its public approval rating of only 25 percent, by Donald Trump. The broadcast could be heard loudly from ceiling speakers in the terminal restrooms.
Nobody among the silent and huddled masses milling around the dismal terminal gave so much as a passing glance up at the talking heads. CNN might as well have been streaming images of water boiling or paint drying as far my fellow travelers were concerned.
I stood, head tilted up, mesmerized by the glowing cable news. The network put up old clips of Trump insisting that the tax "reform" would hurt the wealthy, himself included, but help everyone else. Expert CNN commentators smiled as they acknowledged that this was an absurd, baldfaced lie.
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