Thursday, April 6, 2006

Can you hear me now?

Lately, I've been reading even more complaints about cell phones. Cell phones at restaurants. Cell phones in public restrooms. Cell phones on buses. At concerts. At museums. At sporting events. At poolside. Cell phones everywhere.

Once a status symbol, cell phones have become almost as much a necessity as T-shirts, jeans, and clean underwear. I wonder why.

When I got my cell phone, I used it mainly to keep track of people I was meeting, or to let them know if I was going to be late. When I still had dial-up Internet, I used it at home when my phone was otherwise engaged. I don't know of any reason why I would get into line at Subway and suddenly want to "reach out and touch someone." Most of the time, I don't have that much to say or a pressing need to say it right now. In front of dozens of strangers.

In the not-so-distant past, when we were restricted to land lines and the phone rang during dinner, the person who answered was instructed to "tell him we're eating dinner. I'll call him back later." That was in the privacy of our own home, when we felt that finishing a meal sitting down was an important part of the ritual of eating. Now, whether we're in a busy family restaurant or a fine dining venue, if the phone rings we feel compelled to answer it. Then we carry on a personal conversation within earshot of 20 people as though we are oblivious to them—as though we were in the privacy of our own home.

Before cordless phones became popular, it never seemed to occur to anyone to use their bathroom at home as a phone booth. Now, if you go into any public restroom, you're likely to hear half a conversation—held over the sound of running water and various bodily functions. Once I walked into a restaurant bathroom and heard a woman speaking loudly. I waited for a response from the other stall, which I assumed was occupied, but none came. After a moment, I realized that the woman in the first stall had retreated to the bathroom to have what appeared to be a long, deep conversation on the phone about relationship issues. When she came out, she didn't even notice me at the sink. I wondered if the person at the other end had enjoyed hearing my bodily functions.

On public transportation, there are people who call their friends to tell them, "I'm on the bus. It's passing 35th Street. Nah. I saw her last night. I'm on my way home." Or to describe every detail of their work day, often with much profanity, as though there weren't 15 people nearby who can't help but hear it all. Sometimes the conversations are so painfully mundane that I can't help wondering about the quantities of energy expended upon so little. "She got her car fixed Tuesday . . . No, it was the computer . . . Well, she's had it three years . . . I don't know." At this point, I don't know and I don't care. It's amazing that the human brain, capable of inventing the technology behind wireless communications, often has so little to communicate and yet so great a need.

Do you remember when teenage girls would take calls on the living room phone, and, glaring at the rest of the family, who were pretending not to listen but who were paying close attention to every word, would say, "Do you mind?" Such girls would plead for their own phones in their own rooms so they could have some privacy to discuss their lives and loves. Now you'll find them in coffee shops, at juice bars and malls, and on the street, gossiping with their girlfriends and billing and cooing with their would-be lovers, with no regard for privacy. As long as the listeners aren't prying relatives, it must not matter.

Of course, cell phones give the "Bickersons" even more opportunities to fight in front of an even greater audience. These are those couples we all know who can't carry on a conversation without getting in a few dozen digs at one another and making everyone around them uncomfortable. Now everyone can listen to, "That's not what I said . . . You said you weren't busy Friday night . . . How was I supposed to know? . . . Well, you should have thought of that . . . You always do this . . ."

Are we so extroverted as a species that we have to have an audience for every thought? Are we so insecure that we need to have every feeling validated immediately or that we must act out every personal drama publicly?

Or is our dependence on cell phones, the Internet, gaming, iPods, and other marvels of everyday life one symptom of a mass variation of AD/HD? "Typically children with AD/HD have developmentally inappropriate behavior, including poor attention skills, impulsivity, and hyperactivity."

We are a generation, or two, afflicted with the "fidgets." People can't focus on on doing one thing at a time. We can't sit still on a bus or in a restaurant without finding something else to do. We can't drive a car—a function that should require all of our attention—without eating, drinking, singing to the radio, playing air guitar, putting on makeup, shaving, or talking on a cell phone. We can't eat a meal, even in the company of others, without talking on a cell phone. We can't walk down a sidewalk without talking on a cell phone. We can't read a magazine on the bus without talking on a cell phone. We can't even perform the basic bodily functions without reading and/or talking on a cell phone. The moment the body or mind is engaged with one task, simple or complex, it seems to seek out additional ones. Despite the popularity of tai chi, yoga, meditation, and similar disciplines, we fear introspection. We do not want to be alone and vulnerable to the power of thought, an interesting concern on an overcrowded planet of 6.5 billion people. We seem to be afraid of quiet and stillness, of not doing anything.

I do wonder if this is our newest way of being alive and connected. Our sedentary, indoor lifestyles have severed our connection with the life of the earth. To know what it is to sweat, we go to a gym, where we watch television and listen to music on our iPods. The senses that were once stimulated by the activities of survival and life are now stifled by our climate-controlled environments or overwhelmed by the noise of crowds and traffic. To sit still with nothing to do is too much like death, too much like being alone in a crowded world.

Or perhaps we talk all the time, everywhere, on our cell phones simply because we can.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! I found myself nodding and agreeing all the way through this. Sometimes I feel very old fashioned when I refuse to call someone during "dinnertime" or after a certain time at night (unless previously ok'd.) If my cell rings in a store, I step outside to talk. In a restaurant? Pfft, it's going to voice mail. And I'm still not used to seeing children with cell phones.