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Friday, September 15, 2006

The Trip: Socializing In Solo

If you give six people something to do by themselves, and then have them do it while they're in a room together, is that a social experience?

For instance, say the activity is actually inactivity, more specifically the inactivity of waiting and the act of looking out the window absent-mindedly. Say the environment we're talking about here is a car, just to make it easier to visualize. And to add a human touch, let's say it's a family in the car. Is this a social environment, or just a combination of six solitary environments?

I could certainly see the multiplayer aspect of a family sitting in a car if that family happened to be fighting. But say they're listening to the radio, or not even so much as listening to the radio. In theory, the people should get bored and have no choice but to start talking, at which point the environment will become a social one. In theory.

But let us further assume that in this family there are not enough common interests to start up a conversation, or at least a conversation which will engage more than two or three of the passengers. Maybe three of the family members are in a heated discussion about politics, while the other three are left out due to their own disinterest. We can say that there are four wholly separate "environments" (one involving three people, the other three involving one each) existing within this car. Whether those left out are doing anything or not, and what they are doing, is completely irrelevant for identifying socialization, because their presence does not affect anyone around them.

Now, at this point you may very well be suprised to learn that this is not really a hypothetical scenario at all, but in fact a true story in which the characters are my family (myself included). But do not worry!- The situation is not quite as hopeless as you might think, for we had a DVD player in the car!

Now, watching a DVD is a single-player activity, so to speak. The filmmaker (excepting certain specific cases) gives no thought to what social context the video will be viewed in- the best, most pure way to enjoy a movie is with as few social distractions as possible, so that you can view it on its own terms rather than the random social context it has been placed in.

You probably have already anticipated the question which I am leading toward (Well done!): "How does a one-person experience fare in a setting with more than one person?" We all know that it works fairly well in a theater setting, due to the unspoken rule "SHUT UP AND WATCH THE MOVIE!". (It is unspoken mostly because everyone has shut up and is watching the movie.) A car is a smaller yet more chaotic setting, because not everyone is involved in the watching of the movie. The screen is placed in between the backs of the front seats, hanging from the ceiling. Thus there are at all times two people (one thankfully being the driver) who cannot see the movie. Keep in mind that they can hear it nonetheless.

Some of the rules are inherited from theater, to retain some measure of common courtesy. Namely, no one person should control the pacing, and all present are to remain silent for the entire duration of the film. At this point we have six solo experiences within the car: four viewings of the movie, and two waitings in silence, with a little driving added in. This situation may seem stable at first, but it is not. The two in front (one of whom happens to like to have control over the situation in his car) are bored enough to talk but forbidden to, and so they occupy themselves with the one activity left to them:
Fiddling with the volume control to make the louder portions of the movie less unpleasant for themselves.

Suddenly a social experience emerges, and a complex one at that. The volume is adjusted only at especially loud segments (such as action scenes), but a good movie will usually not be perfectly consistant in its dynamics and so the softer portions, often containing only dialogue, cannot be heard at all. And so the four interact between each other, with exchanges like this:
"What did he say?"
"I don't know- I didn't hear. Did you hear what he said?"
"Me? No- you're the one by the speaker!"
"But I was leaning over here to see the screen better! What did he say, really?"
"Is that my fault?"
"I think he said something about horses and windmills."
"Your ears are broken, he said something like 'I have no foot with which to eat my lunch.'!"
"Shut up and let me watch the movie!"

And then the four viewers must put their trust in one of their number, sitting in the middle row, to control the pacing so they can watch that segment over and over again. When it turns out that it still can't be heard, another facet of this game appears, in which one brave member of the viewers must ask one or the other of the nonviewers to raise the volume again, while taking into account which of the two was the one to lower it in the first place (so as not to offend), how much time has passed since the lowering, how many times he and/or others have asked (at risk of frustrating the front-sitters), how forceful such a request must be and whether it need be asked several times, and the fact that everyone in the car knows that it will get louder again later and again upset the driver and his companion. In the meantime the movie has still been playing, leading to more flow-control, and the front-sitters have taken the opportunity presented by the commotion (an indication that the movie has lost focus) to start a short conversation between themselves. All participants in this now-unified car may bask in the light of the social atmosphere.

And now we may return to the original question, and ask: "If you give each six people a single-player experience, and then have them do it while they're stuck with the others, is that a social experience?" And now we see in practice the answer which was obvious from the start:


But if you stick these chaos-ridden people in a room together, unless the setting is as stable and time-tested as can be, one of these people is likely to stop playing in their own corner and start affecting everyone else. At that point, all involved will be having a social experience.

And I hope I've made myself clear: This is most assuredly NOT a good thing.

Throwing a one-person experience into an unstable social environment is like throwing a person into a pit of untamed crocodiles. Big ones. With sharp teeth and nasty tempers.

Volume is one problem, and it was as much a concern when I was trying to listen to music as when we were watching a DVD- more so, in fact. The solution would be some sort of "audio contrast" control, which the divergence of the volume from the norm would be divided by. (If you lower the audio contrast to 0%, the volume stays consistantly at one level. If you raise it to 150%, all differences in dynamics are exaggerated. In this case, we'd want to keep it around 40% or so.) It would detract very much from the quality of the single-player experience, but concessions must be made to the crocodiles in order to escape the worse alternative. Audio contrast is a very important feature to the stereo system of any social environment used for music and movies with changing dynamics -like say a car. Too bad it doesn't actually exist.

Even if it did, the volume problem wouldn't go away in all settings. At almost every social setting on the whole trip, I played the piano. What else would I do- talk? Neah, I preferred to show off. So I would play for them much as I do at home to amuse myself. It was a form of socialization to begin with here, because it was affecting the people around me. (This is not to say that I payed any notice at all of whether anyone actually wanted me to play- I didn't care.) Now, I was trying to be considerate to some degree, so I didn't play my most bombastic pieces. Some people commented that my music could be classified as "easy listening" music, and I pointed out that under the circumstances I couldn't very well play anything else. But that wasn't enough for my father, who kept coming over (every time I did this, several times) and begging me to "keep it down". I was the one in control of the volume here, playing the piano as a single-player game, but it was a crowd. It doesn't work, I tell you.

Pacing is another frequent problem. When we were at The Art Institute of Chicago, I tried to savor each pretty painting I came across. Well, not every pretty painting, but there were some which grabbed my eye, and I'd just stand for minutes, not really analyzing so much as looking through the "window" the frame was, into this other world within. This isn't exactly how my sisters approached the museum. Miriam and Dena must have ran through the rooms, because my father came to tell me that they were bored so it was time to leave. Art is something which must be appreciated for yourself. It's not a group activity. And we put it in a social setting, and -smush- there goes half the experience.

We were only in Illinois for two days. I wanted to stay. No, I mean for good- I really do love my grandparents' house. I enjoyed myself just walking back and forth in their house, I love it so much. We didn't do all that much in Illinois, but that's the thing about contentment- it doesn't rely on keeping busy. It didn't take me any time at all from the time we arrived to get settled into "my" room- it really did feel like coming home. I didn't want to go. It was a personal thing, between me and the house. And we had come as a family. We left.



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