The Disappearing City

When living in a major city, you cannot miss the number of commuters burying their heads into their phones on the train, whilst the city passes them by without a glance. It reminded me of a chapter from my favourite childhood book – the Phantom Tollbooth. A fantasy adventure about a curious, bored boy called Milo who wants to find meaning in this world. Under mysterious circumstances, he receives a package containing a magical tollbooth, which leads him into a great adventure. He is exported into the Kingdom of Wisdom, in which it becomes his mission to save the exiled princesses – Rhyme and Reason –  it through this journey where he learns valuable lessons about life. Especially a particularly important lesson, when he enters the city of Reality…


“Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry. The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”

“Didn’t they have any place to go?” asked Milo.

“To be sure,” continued Alec; “but, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”

Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.

“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”

“Hasn’t anyone told them?” asked Milo.

“It doesn’t do any good,” Alec replied, “for they can never see what they’re in too much of a hurry to look for.”


It’s true, you can never really appreciate something until you take the time to. It’s weird how a childhood book can disguise life lessons such as the importance of presence over productivity and the value of time. How do you spend your time in a day? According to data from Statista, more than half their respondents have spent five or more hours on their phones daily in 2017. What the first thing you do when you wake up? Grab your phone? It’s become a habit to pick up our phone for no reason at all.

I remember my childhood, where sending a text felt like a mission having to tap several buttons to create a single word. Nevertheless, there was more chatter amongst people, now there is silence, where chatter has now migrated to the black hole of technology.  Our main source of entertainment was being amongst friends and family, now it’s easier to facetime them. People no longer know how to enjoy and immerse themselves in the moment, people could stand in front of one of the seven wonders of the world, but the only thing they are wondering is if they took a good selfie or if it has been shared to all their social media platforms.

How do brands play a role in this? Millions are spent on railway advertisements but what is the point if no one is paying attention?  Should brands go as far as using GPS to track commuters’ whereabouts? This is becoming more common as it now possible for adverts to be sent to individuals, which then helps to determine their current location. It helps to identify their network traffic, so that specific ads could be targeted to their smartphone. It’s becoming more of a struggle for brands to keep up with the fast-paced world.

We are always looking for ways to be more productive and up to date, so running to work whilst looking at our phone is our way of doing that. However, the trade-off is not appreciating our surroundings and taking a break from our busy lives. Our idea of a break, is taking a holiday, even then we struggle to take a break from our smartphones. Can we ever live a fulfilled life, if we don’t take the time to live it?

The morning rush-hour, I’ve witnessed in London and now Melbourne reflects the city of Reality in the Phantom Tollbooth. People looking down at their phones whilst rushing to work, not noticing how the Yarra river sparkles on a sunny day, or how the people express themselves through the gritty street art plastered over the walls of Melbourne and how it is one of the few cities still rich with beautiful plants and trees.

So here I am, on a train to work, looking at commuters engrossed in their phones, whilst the city of Melbourne disappears behind them.


By Suher Sofi

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