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

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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.