I have a confession to make: I have a pay-as-you-go cellphone. And I have a further confession: I had never owned a cell phone prior to April of 2009. This amazes people when I talk about it. They wonder, "How did you ever survive without it?" I often hear, "I could never live without my phone." When I eventually got mine, my friends were shocked. And yes, for a little while toward the end I milked it a bit for the attention. But my reasoning went deeper than that.
Now just to set the stage a bit, I am very far from what you might consider an anti-technologist. I am an engineer, I love understanding how things work, I made my living off computers for several years, and the latest and greatest in gadgetry fascinates me. I'm a geek, even a nerd, and I'm ok with it.
But (and this is huge, perhaps even colossal) I know that, for me, there are things in this world more important than stuff. And there are social mores more important to me than having the latest news / gossip. I feel that one of the most precious things I can give to another person is my attention. I am susceptible to distraction, especially when it involves information and learning on topics I'm interested in. And I know that I cannot live in the moment, with the people that surround me, if an easy distraction is simply a few button presses away.
1) Many years back I spent an evening with friends, when we made a home-cooked dinner and actually sat around the table. This was around the time when a majority of people were obtaining cell phones. Polyphonic ringtones were in vogue, and someone's phone went off at the table. They picked it up and proceeded to have a conversation while the rest of us paused. Then, once they were finished, the table talk turned to what each person had as their ringtone. For nearly 15 minutes, in 5-30 second bursts, I endured my own personal hell. Beeps and blips played Mozart and Sir Mix-A-Lot and who knows what else, but the pleasant evening of conversation had just been drowned in inane pre-teen-like techno-giggling. I was nearly physically ill.
2) Just last week we went to see a series of plays at Steppenwolf over the course of two nights. During a particularly poignant and quiet moment in the first show, someone's obnoxious ringer went off for 5 seconds. And during the third show, with all the lights low and just after intermission, a person two rows in front of us pulled out his bright touchscreen smartphone to listen to his voice mail. When an usher sitting behind him quietly told him to put it away, his aghast look made me want to kick him in the face.
Cellphones enable rude and sometimes dangerous behavior "In Real Life". They easily suck attention away from things that are actually important, like face to face conversations, intimate performances, and even driving. Blackberries and iPhones take this even further, allowing a person access to their online world regardless of what's going on in their physical presence. I try to use these devices with caution in any environment, and give due deference to those people I'm actually with. If for no other reason, it's hard to be punched by someone on the other end of the line...