How Could A Train Full of Commuters Not See An Armed Gunman? Pretty Easily, Actually.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013 - 11:05 AM

subway reading (Mo Riza/flickr)

Slate brought my attention to this shocking San Francisco Chronicle story about inattentive commuters

A man standing on a crowded Muni train pulls out a .45-caliber pistol.

He raises the gun, pointing it across the aisle, before tucking it back against his side. He draws it out several more times, once using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. Dozens of passengers stand and sit just feet away - but none reacts.

Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don't lift until the gunman fires a bullet into the back of a San Francisco State student getting off the train.

The student, twenty-year-old Justin Valdez, died. It's a horrifying story, and if you commute in a city, you recognize those device-absorbed commuters. You've probably been one. 

Here's a video that'll feel like a non-sequitur, but watch it, it's just a minute a half. It's a bunch of college students throwing a basketball. Count how many times the white-shirted students pass the ball between them. Ignore the black-shirted ones. It's a lot harder than you think. 

 

Did you see the gorilla? Half the people who watch this video miss him completely. Psychologists call this "inattentional blindness." If you're in the middle of an attention-demanding task, like counting basketball players or playing Dots, you're less likely to notice an unexpected stimulus in your field of vision. Like a gorilla. Or perhaps, a mentally disturbed person with a gun. 

The Chronicle story has all the right ingredients for a parable about how our bewitching devices are literally killing us. And sure, we should pay attention to our surroundings. But we should be careful about how much we blame our technology. That gorilla video reminds us that a train full of a newspaper readers, or knitters, or crossword-puzzlers could have missed that gunman too. Our attention is a narrower beam than we'd like to admit.

There's one last part of the story that I think's being under-considered, probably because it's a little ugly.

Part of living in a city means cultivating certain kinds of blindness. In New York, if you see a stranger who wants something from you - money, an ear to rant in, a body to hit on - you ignore them. You don't make eye contact, you try not to even look at them peripherally. Attention is a currency, and you learn to withhold it, or else you spend a lot of time apologizing. Someone who was mentally disturbed enough to wipe his nose with a gun on a train was also probably someone who commuters had learned to treat with studied inattention. 

It's tempting to treat this problem, of missing things, as newer than it is. It's tempting to blame it on Candy Crush. But there's always been a lot we chose not to pay attention to. 

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Comments [2]

Brian Ray

It is understandable that commuters didn't see a man with a gun, or didn't want to see it in the hope that having seen it, that would be the end of it, but sadly that wasn't.

In Chicago, on the trains, there is a button on each car, located under a bright blue light if there is a need to alert the conductor to anything that one considers might require the conductor's attention. But the button does nothing for preventing a situation like the one described from occurring. Very few people would risk their lives to get to the button to prevent something from happening. Were there more buttons that were accessible, then there would be a lot of reporting on things that didn't require the attention of the conductor, but got it anyway.

There are solutions, using modern technologies like the manned camera, and ways of alerting those people manning the cameras, who would then alert the conductor or police as needed. Since texting is perhaps the most surreptitious manner of communications, being able to text data from the train to a surveillance center would seem to be the way to go.

Of course there is data that would need to be transmitted that would have to be immediately available to the person sending the text, like the train number or run, but that isn't client friendly data. But the next station would be. There are ways to create a system that could be worked out, were we to put our shoulders to the proverbial wheel.

Oct. 10 2013 11:19 AM

Regarding the last 2 paragraphs: 22 years ago I moved to NYC from a town of 12,000 people. Not only do you learn to do what PJ Vogt describes, but you learn it fast and without ever being told.

Oct. 09 2013 10:17 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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