Cell phones separate us from reality

I was downing a Copperhead on the mezzanine of the Free State Brewery when I became aware of a strange but familiar phenomenon unfolding on the floor below. Eight friends had gathered at a table. After a momentary burst of conviviality, they all pulled out their cell phones and gazed at them with rapt expressions, as if those gadgets might decipher the riddle of existence. The unity of the gathering abruptly dissolved. Everyone became isolated in his own bubble.

The phenomenon was repeated at other tables throughout the evening. Someone would make a brief pronouncement, then drop out and stare as if hypnotized at his electronic talisman. An annoying jingle would penetrate the Brewery’s din, announcing the transmission of a momentous message. A look of urgency would transform the face of the chosen one, who would start barking into his cell phone, leaving his companions in a hiatus of silence.

It’s no an exaggeration to say that these pernicious devices have changed the nature of human experience. Checking the cell phone for messages has become a universal gesture, almost replacing the salutary wave of greeting. People have become more comfortable relating to the voice of an absent person than to those who are actually near at hand. A new “community” of disembodied talkers has replaced the society of human beings. Friends are now a collection of names on an electronic index.

“Cell” phone — aptly named. Because these devices are virtual prisons that capture the individual’s consciousness, rob him of his freedom, alienate him from his neighbors and the natural world. Is there any apparition more depressing than a man walking by himself, talking to his cell phone, gesticulating to the unseeing air? What do they talk about? What is the attraction of “being in touch?” What solace is there in a voice that says, “Just checking in?” or one breathlessly announcing that he’s just clipped his toe nails and fed the dog?

The ring of a telephone makes me jump. It’s a warning that someone wants to hassle me. Someone wants to pick my pocket. It disrupts my precious solitude. The airplane lands, every passenger pulls out his cell phone and proclaims the historic news: “We’ve just landed.” Followed by, “Would you let the cat out? And check to see if there’s any milk in the fridge.” The airport is filled with people who can’t tolerate a moment of silence. Talking into the cell phone seems a way of reassuring themselves that they still have a pulse, that they’re still alive.

The phones go off in the middle of baptisms and funerals. There’s no escape. The universe is filling up with our spent verbiage. Maybe it will dissuade aliens from the temptation of conquering us. I heard about a girl who’d had a terrible accident caused by the fact that she was “text messaging” while driving. After a long recovery, she was back behind the wheel. She tried to stop, but the longest she could to go without punching out a message was five minutes. It was an “addiction,” she said. Sure enough, she was soon back in the hospital after another crippling accident.

A cartoon in the New Yorker shows the typical family gathered for Thanksgiving. Dad is glued to the big screen TV, watching a football game, chewing on a drumstick and drinking a can of beer. Mom is confiding to her cell phone. Granny — the old fashioned one — is talking on the land line. Sis gives her thumbs a workout on her Blackberry. Her brother, with earphones clamped on, yells at a video game. Uncle Bud is capturing the scene on his camcorder. Only the baby is still in touch with reality. He’s sitting on the floor drinking from his bottle, looking at the cat.