A number of my friends have returned from their Thanksgiving holidays with their families with a general complaint. It goes something like this:
There was a complete lack of face-to-face communication. Family members seemed far more interested in communicating with their electronic devices and the teenagers, especially, spent their time texting, poring over their apps, watching TV shows or playing computer games. There was little or no face-to-face communication. We began to feel as if we, in person, were completely irrelevant to the lives of some of our family members, especially the younger folks; and had the distinct feeling that we were drifting away from them on a sea of indifference. All in all, it was a very discouraging family gathering.
I do understand that from the perspective of a teenager, older people might appear boring and clueless. Admittedly, many of us of mature years do not understand their music, their cultural world, their figures of speech, their morals, or their worldview. Most teenagers are immersed in a celebrity culture, which has neither interest nor relevance to many of us and their zeitgeist is tethered to their machines. My instinct is to give them a pass, at least for now.
But my anecdotal observations go beyond the teenage generation into people perhaps one or two generations beyond, who are becoming increasingly addicted to these machines. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see people of mature years pull out their smart phones to review their current e-mails or texts or phone calls as if present company was irrelevant to the moment.
I keep wondering if the sense of urgency has been upgraded to an emergency level. It indicates to me that present company, especially at the dinner table or in what is passing for conversation, is less relevant to what is currently being communicated to them via smart phone babble. Aside from the sheer rudeness of the act, it describes the one who cannot resist consulting his or her device as a personality with a severe addiction. One such friend of mine consults his smart phone every 10 minutes as if he were waiting for the latest report on what time the world is slated to implode.
I am beginning to notice other odd phenomena. In restaurants, two people, presumably on a date, will place their phones next to their silverware as if it were part of the regular display of utensils poised for immediate use. Another baffling oddity is what I observe going up and down the elevator to my apartment on the 20th floor, a trip to ground floor of about 10 seconds. Invariably, an entering tenant will consult his or her phone immediately and for the entire ride, barely a blink in time. People who have misplaced their phones tell me that without them in hand they feel naked, deprived and increasingly anxious.
I am well aware that children are tethered to these machines from the age of two and, for them, the machine becomes their principal tool of communication for a lifetime. Soon, as the non-computer generation passes on, the machine will dominate, if it does not already, every phase of our lives from the cradle to the grave.
Researchers on the brain have begun to imagine theories that postulate that the brain, the organism itself, is somehow becoming dependent on the machine as if it were an auxiliary attachment becoming essential to its functioning. Frankly, it sounds bizarre, although my own observations have indicated a dependency that appears deeply embedded in many of the people I encounter in my daily life.
There are many places I inhabit in that have a strict rule about no cell phones. Most are clubs and organizations devoted to conversation, requiring face-to-face communication. Auditoriums presenting movies and other theatrical events ban the use of phones. Even in these places, I see patrons sneaking a peak at the cell phones during performances, akin to what I observed years ago in Madison Square Garden as people lit up their cigarettes, an addiction that is still in the process of being eradicated.
I acknowledge that these devices are indeed amazing and enormously useful to most of us, a communication miracle. I am hardly a Luddite on the subject.
I am merely suggesting that like all good things, there is a hidden downside. Will they inhibit the development of conversational skills? Will they result in a vulgarization of language? Will something be lost between the fading older generation and the younger one, something of historical importance that can only be gleaned from face-to-face social discourse? Will we have to re-imagine the rules of courtesy and politeness and redefine the difference between emergency and urgency? Will the loss of these machines by some man-made breakdown have psychological implications that profoundly affect our sense of anxiety and cause depression?
Will there be rehab centers devoted to smart phone addiction? Perhaps they are functioning as I write.
As for the complaints of my Thanksgiving family reunion-attending friends, I can offer only what was once called tea and sympathy. As they say, it is what it is.
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include The War of the Roses, Random Hearts and the PBS trilogy The Sunset Gang. He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at www.warrenadler.com.