At the Crossroads of the World, A Snapshot of Modern Technology

Real people using tech in the heart of New York City

Times Square New York

Standing in the middle of Times Square, New York the other day, I started taking stock of people and their gadgets. I do this frequently in stores, on trains and on the street. It’s a quick way of figuring out what people are using and how they use it.

On this day I saw, as I now often do, some over-the-ear headphones, a handful of wired EarPods and off-brand audio gear, many, many AirPods, and almost as many iPhones (if they weren’t sticking out of someone’s back pocket). There were also a lot of phones that I didn’t immediately recognize. Times Square brings together people from all over the world, making it a better representation of Apple’s relatively small global market share than any other place in the U.S. One woman raised a small and rather blocky looking phone to document the towering billboards. I realized it was a Sony Xperian, a model rarely seen in the wild in this country. The company does its best to attract new customers, most recently offering high-end headphones for free when your order the Xperia 1 flagship model.

Selfie Times and the Flash

I saw people struggling to capture the right selfie, some by themselves and others with the assistance of friends. They don’t realize how lucky they are to live in an era where we can instantly see our photographic results, while our camera roll is virtually limitless. I watched as a pair of young women had their mother take one shot after another, each time they would smile, pose, then, their grins collapsing into frowns, step forward to look at the shot on their mother’s phone. They were never satisfied. The pair posed dramatically in front of the gargantuan, flashing billboards for a solid 10 minutes as their father sat off to the side with his head in his hands.

The habit of taking selfies without regard to personal risk is just as prevalent here as it is anywhere else in the world.

Times Square is a pedestrian-friendly mall, but it still has a few streets running horizontally through it. One woman and her friend stood 10 feet apart and then, stutter-stepped across an intersection, pausing every few seconds as one tried repeatedly to get the perfect mid-Times Square shot. When a taxi waiting to make a left turn honked in complaint, one of the woman leapt straight up into the air. Now if only they’d captured that shot.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, but I detected more than a few snap-happy tourists using their smartphone flash. I assume that most of them don’t even realize it’s on and are just needlessly wasting smartphone battery life because they never bothered to learn how to manage their camera phone settings. On other occasions I have seen people shooting video in daylight with the LED flash on the entire time. Some of these tourists may erroneously believe the flash will somehow illuminate Time Square but unless the LED has the intensity of the sun, this is unlikely.

In these situations, I have to resist the urge to grab these people by the collars, shake them, and tell them to stop.

Wide Screen

The number of selfie sticks has dropped precipitously. A few years ago, it seemed like everyone was using them and a tourist destination like Times Square resembled an army of umbrella carriers who’ve all lost their umbrellas but still carried the stems, waving them about and just missing each other’s heads.

I wonder if the disappearance of selfie stick is tied to a realization that we were annoying each other or to the fact that many modern smartphones, including the iPhone XR, now have ultra-wide lenses, letting us take in more of the scene without the need for unusually long arms or those dreaded sticks.

Times Square is exciting enough that it also pulls the gaze up and away from our cellphones. I don’t think I saw more than a few people walking with their heads down and eyes locked on the smartphone screens in their hands. It’s just so rare to see people looking straight ahead or up. I found it refreshing.

Times Square Electronics Store Gadgets

You can capture some astonishing pictures in the bustling city center, but, aside from professional photographers and videographers that often dot the bustling landscape, I counted perhaps three DSLR cameras. There were also one or two Point and Shoot cameras, which are now only worth using if they include a super zoom. Most of us, though, are content to take pictures with our smartphones.

Along this same corridor are numerous electronics shops trying to sell tourists some of the very same gadgets they’re already carrying. I love looking at their window displays because most of them don’t bother to swap out products for current technology. In one shop I spotted a cluster of smartphones from 2011, including a near pristine-looking iPhone 4S. This is akin to a restaurant making a burger in 2015 and then placing it in their window and using it to attract customers for the next five years. “Never mind the ants and that fist-sized roach, this is good food. Come eat!”

And yet, when I look inside these stores, I do see customers milling around. Perhaps they think they’ll get a good deal on a Samsung Galaxy S5 (that’s not a typo) or a camcorder that still uses video tape.

These tourists, though, are no less tech savvy than us Americans and, while they do succumb to the dumb souvenir and can be corralled by a dozen dirty Elmos, they’re usually not carrying around gadget filled bags. They brought what they need, and while I don’t always agree with how they use their gear, they know enough not to buy decade-old technology.