Cell Phones (HAL?) vs. Humans: Welcome to '2012: A Life Odyssey'

When the parties have been seated, the food has been served, and the time-honored tradition of "dinner conversation" has commenced, the pinging of incoming texts and the private giggles and mad key tapping in response are not remotely what "dinner conversation" had in mind.
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The children are out of school, summer events are on the calendar, families are gathering for barbecues and potlucks, and it's just so darned great to pull the picnic tables out of the garage and get everybody together to... watch half the crowd bent over their cellphones texting, emailing, or giggling over some private joke.

Welcome to 2012: A Life Odyssey. Cellphones vs. Humans.

Remember HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey? That crazy, monotone-voiced computer who came to life and attempted a coup aboard the spaceship? I'll never forget that creepy, "Hello, Dave," and half expect my much-too-smart phone to start greeting me as such with my morning coffee (though with the new "Siri" on the iPhone, we appear to be getting closer!). While Stanley Kubrick might have been a bit off in his estimation of where the world would actually be in 2001, it appears he was remarkably prescient about how powerful, ubiquitous, and overreaching technology would become.

Cellphones have been with us long enough now to no longer be considered a novelty. They are, in fact, perceived as essential as cars, TVs, and computers and I don't necessarily disagree. The day I waited frantically at my son's bus stop for over an hour without knowing if the bus had broken down or had, in fact, been early and my son was now missing or kidnapped, I damn well wished someone on that bus had a way to call someone. (It had broken down and, no, not one person, including the bus driver, had a phone. I got my kid a cheap Samsung the very next day!).

Clearly they serve a purpose. They can alert anxious parents or make traffic jams less stressful when adjusted ETAs can be called in. They can keep families in touch when someone's traveling or out of town, they're convenient when questions need quick answers, and they ease logistics during any major life event such as moving, weddings, or hospital stays. Yes, we did used to manage without them but let's be honest: they do make all of the aforementioned much easier so, to that extent, they have become essential.

Except when they're not. And while it should be perfectly clear when those times are, one need only look around at the bent necks and downward drifting eyes to realize we could use a cultural refresher on cellphone essentials.

The evolution of a child from the clinging, kissy-face, I-love-Mommy stage to that sullen, eyes-averted, elsewhere-focused teenager is likely a familiar one to any parent. I was blessed with a child whose moodiness was meted out selectively and whose conversations could generally be counted on while driving to and from school, so it was not a subtle change when the newly-acquired cellphone came between us. Suddenly, instead of chatter about skateboarding or the sharing of songs he'd discovered on Pandora, he was bent over his phone, silently sending and receiving texts, likely to and from the very kids he'd be seeing in five minutes or had left five minutes before. Not essential.

At family dinners? You got it, not essential. When the parties have been seated, the food has been served, and the time-honored tradition of "dinner conversation" has commenced, the pinging of incoming texts and the private giggles and mad key tapping in response are not remotely what "dinner conversation" had in mind.

But let's not kid ourselves about this syndrome being relegated to the young. I was in line at Staples recently when a man old enough to know better persisted in chatting loudly on his phone while the poor checker struggled to conduct the transaction (which appeared to require some splitting of the bill between two credit cards). Not only did I hear way more of this fellow's conversation than I wanted (apparently "Barb" was not getting that "Ginny needs the spreadsheets by four or we're all in the crapper!"... see, way too much!), but my own timetable for getting out of the store was sharply stymied by his distracted and discourteous behavior. Regardless of how urgently Ginny needed those spreadsheets, he could have waited till he stepped outside to read Barb the riot act. Not essential by any translation.

I see this syndrome every day as I walk down the street, no matter where I am or what town I'm in; too many people staring down at their phones, chatting on their phones, texting from their phones, or doing whatever it is they simply must do on their phones at that moment regardless of where they are, who they're with, or what's going on. This, my friends, is seriously not essential.

What is essential? Learning the art of conversation and practicing it with full eye contact and authentic interest. Taking advantage of moments in the car to catch up, tell a good story, or share plans for the weekend. Making the conscious decision to tuck the phone away during dinner, regardless of who might try to get in touch (they can wait), or deciding that observing one's surroundings, enjoying the weather, or taking in passersby with a nod or "hello" is a far more important contribution to human relations than poring over texts or emails while walking down the street.

Technology is a good thing, here to assist us in all the ways it does and I, for one, am a fan. But just as HAL was ultimately disconnected, giving power back to the humans, we, too, can make the decision to keep technology in its rightful place. Let's do that. Let's put the phones down and bring our eyes back up to connect with the people in the room, the car, or walking past us on the street. It might take some getting use to, but you'll be surprised how much warmer it is up here where our eyes meet.

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