In the Suburbs / Online and out of line
I came to the conclusion last week at a friend's Passover Seder that we have outlived our value and interest to others, thanks to the wonders of technology. Midway through the service, I glanced to my left and saw that the two sons of our hostess were on their own journey to freedom from the bondage of this annual religious service. Their Blackberrys were out and they were browsing the web for new car prices. The rest of us at the table were chopped liver.
At first, I chuckled, but didn't have to say anything. Our host, who had called on one of the men to read a passage, also realized that our brief service was competing with a far greater force -- technological distraction. He stopped the service momentarily, ordered these two men -- 43 and 40, respectively -- to turn off their devices.
The guys reluctantly complied. But it was clear going forward in the service that these two participants had checked out intellectually and were simply waiting until the festival meal was served to resume their search. I honestly wondered what the children at the Seder table must have been thinking.
I thought I'd seen it all, but this technology-driven bad behavior really made me think. What other inappropriate technology situations are going on? Chatting with friends and colleagues, I learned quickly that these habits are more common than I ever imagined. And I was told with some chuckles that those of us who don't whip out their devices at totally inappropriate times are among the minority. We're technological dinosaurs who are quickly becoming obsolete.
A great example of my eroding value has come when I face students as a substitute teacher. As much as I try to reinforce the mandatory no-cell-phone rule in our schools, I know within 10 minutes of the bell ringing that I'm going to have a texting challenge on my hands. Even as I am reading what an absent teacher has assigned, I can see those itchy hands moving toward pockets, purses and laps.
When I spoke about my bizarre seder experience, a colleague at the Fairfield Museum and History Center mentioned that on the first night of Passover, she and her husband decided to Skype their son at college. When he responded, he said he was at a college Seder and couldn't speak to them because he was busy surfing his laptop for familiar Passover melodies.
"What could we say?" my colleague asked. "After all, he was at a Seder, and he was certainly doing something productive. I just wondered how his host or hostess must have felt asking `Why is this night different than all other nights?' -- the essence of the holiday -- and gazing at a table of students clacking away on their laptops."
I've gone to coffee places to meet friends who are on their mobile devices, and some can barely grunt "hi," while others chat with me while we're in line and they're still online. They're multi-tasking, and I'm chopped liver. "Listen, I have to run," I tell my friends. "Besides I hate to interrupt anything."
Generally, they are relieved, wave at me and whisper, "Later, bro, and say hello to Mare." Some add, "Text me, man! See ya"
Another colleague from the museum spoke of a woman whose phone went off in church (not that uncommon these days). "It wouldn't have been so bad," my colleague said, "had the woman just turned the phone off. But instead, she put the phone on vibrate and proceeded to text throughout the sermon. I'm sure if I'd looked around, I would have seen plenty of other congregants doing the same thing."
And I was recently at a major scientific symposium when I glanced around during the keynote address. Easily 100 people were on their devices. I couldn't help watching their dancing fingers glide across keyboards.
It was hardly a boring keynote. There were a lot of exciting moments and examples. But sending or receiving texts and emails clearly made much more sense to these folks. Frankly, I felt embarrassed for the speaker.
And yes, I had my phone with me, but the thought of texting or emailing during a valuable speech never entered my mind. I was even more surprised to see the people on their devices straight through the coffee breaks and during the luncheon speech.
"My gosh," I thought, "have we become such technology robots that we're boring each other or losing our own ability to talk with other professionals, especially at a symposium?" Is the only meaningful conversation the one we're having with a texting buddy? I certainly hope not.
Perhaps we need a mandate to use our phones every day only for worthwhile business and personal calls. Or better yet, we need to seek out someone with whom to have some stimulating face-to-face conversation at breakfast, lunch or -- God willing -- a Seder with all phones off.
Frankly, I need to know that what I have to say still means something. I hope I'm not alone.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.