I am a person that is easily fascinated. I find the might of a massive steam locomotive almost a century old to be fascinating, and I think that the nanoscale engines now in development are fascinating as well. Programming languages, philosophy, music, other sciences — all are interesting.
But there’s something more fascinating: people. Sometimes they’re annoying (such as anyone on the Jerry Springer show; I’ve failed to grasp the fascination there for years). Sometimes they’re mysterious. Let’s see where this little observation can lead…
Nearly three years ago, I was standing in a darkened part of Circle Centre Mall in Indianapolis. The mall has some areas where you can use an elevated, enclosed area to cross the street above traffic level. These have mostly glass sides, so you can watch the traffic move underneath. It was about 9PM and almost dark outside.
At first, I noticed the traffic patterns. Off in the distance, red dots move in sync with each other, the cars leaving downtown. Closer, there’s almost a bubble in traffic for the taxi inconveniently blocking a lane.
But there’s something dehumanizing about thinking of these just as patterns of light. There were hundreds of stories moving beneath my feet. Perhaps some were apprehensive about the news. Others may have been heading home with birthday gifts for children. Some may have been driving home the airport, weary after a week away from home and a day of traveling. Maybe some were heading to a funeral.
I used to travel from Indianapolis to Kansas occasionally to visit friends and family. My preferred mode of travel was (and is) the train. On the train, even I, who is not prone to start conversations with strangers, find myself always meeting interesting people. I met a retired German mathematician on the train once, traveling from Chicago to Kansas City to visit a friend. Her seat was next to mine in the coach section, and once she discovered I write software, and I discovered she was a computer scientist in the 60s and 70s, there was so much to talk about that I’m sure we bored plenty of people around us, chattering about computers, society, and differences between Germany and the United States until the train arrived in Kansas City at 10:30PM. Twice more, over the span of two years, I happened to be on the train the very same day she was, and had a chance to catch up. I learned a small bit about at least one story during those trips.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, once had his famous character muse about the lives of Londoners. Holmes remarked, essentially, that if we could see inside every little house in the city, and the goings on contained therein, we would surely learn of innumerable amazing true stories that the best novelist could never imagine. Doyle saw the study of people as intersting, too, and yet also saw that science would never satisfy our interest.
But Doyle was not entirely correct. We would learn a story, but a real story — maybe not. Perhaps one of the houses would contain a person on the phone complaining about a relative. But that wouldn’t tell us whether the relative really was a bad person, or even that this person believed that; only that this was said. We do not even know whether there was a person listening on the other end of the phone.
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski was fond of saying “on Babylon 5, nobody is exactly what he or she appears.” And indeed, in his series, that saying bore out. As it can in real life.
But that doesn’t lessen our fascination with people, with experiences. We’d still like to know what is going on out there. What people like us are doing, saying, thinking; what people unlike us are doing, saying, thinking. We’d like to share some of our words, thoughts, and actions, too.
What better way than blogging. On blogs, I can find the daily thoughts of friends that I have met only twice in real life, yet talk to almost every day online. There are some that I would never have encountered were it not for a fleeting Google click or a link from another blog somewhere. We feel we gain an understanding of others this way; this unfiltered, direct communication between us almost gives us that feeling of being on a train: we can’t help but learn about people.
Like everyone else, bloggers are not exactly what they appear. Do you remember the Iraqi blog? When it first hit the ‘net, there was much debate about whether or not it was authentic. But in a certain sense, it didn’t really matter. It was interesting, and even the doubters kept reading.
Perhaps, then, it is not the random people that initially catch our attention but the stories. The distributed novelist, historian, and comedian that make up our global community can come up with better, more interesting tales than any one novelist.
Or, perhaps all those red lights in the night just meant that the cars were braking for a traffic light.