On Amtrak, powerful people talk loudly and spill secrets.
This is my conclusion based on five years’ field research commuting on Amtrak’s Acela between cities along the East Coast.
By now, you’ve heard about former NSA director Michael Hayden, who on Thursday talked nonstop to a reporter—on background—as the train went north from Washington, D.C. toward New York City. A few seats behind Hayden was Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of political group MoveOn.org, who started live-tweeting his eavesdropping…
As someone who rides the Acela two to three times a week, I can tell you that what Hayden and Matzzie each did—talking loud and tweeting louder—isn’t unusual. In fact, private conversations are so often broadcast across the train car that it’s become fertile ground for competitive intelligence gathering, business development or, as in Matzzie’s case, gaining a whole bunch of new social media followers.
While it may be relatively easy to hear on Amtrak trains, this is also not hard on subways, buses, and other trains. There are plenty of people who talk loudly, particularly on cell phones. I wonder if the best way to stop such loud conversations is to tell people their safety (or even national security!) is at risk – the people around them could learn a lot and then harm them down the road.
Webb argues at the end that most people listening to these public conversations are “accidental spies,” people who would prefer not to hear. However, isn’t this part of participating in public spaces? One doesn’t have to go so far as to strain to hear what people are saying to analyze and/or enjoy human conversation. Why not listen to the lives of others? Doing so can be a lot more interesting than “reality TV” that is heavily edited and scripted.
A final thought: I wonder how many people read this commentary and then think how nice it is to drive themselves to work and elsewhere. No nosy people nearby then, particularly if you have tinted glass…