Thursday, December 8, 2011

Staring at the Screen

We are gathered together, perhaps four thousand of us, waiting for the show to start. The smell of popcorn, beer, and the occasional wisp of cigar smoke from outside floats in. Seats are found, jackets are shrugged off, and a variety of bodies settle into chairs that are not quite big enough for our increased sizes. A light melody plays on the overhead sound system while the roadies prepare for the show. I look at the darkened stage with anticipation, eager for the band to come on and the show to begin. As I look around the crowded auditorium, I realize I am only one of a few who are actually looking at the stage or around the venue.
All eyes are on hands, laps, and whatever is clutched at the end of a sweatered arm.
Phones and other medium-sized devices with glowing screens. Faces are cast in a blue-gray hue as they concentrate on illuminated words and pictures. Very few people talk to one another. They stare into the bottomless depths of social networking, gaming, and texting. Pixels fly by, and pixels are punched back in with deft fingers on keyboards the size of match books. Computers that used to fill whole rooms are now pinched between thumb and forefinger.
Groups of people speak no word to one another, though I saw them all arrive as one. Everyone chats briefly—double-checking the row and seat location—before they fall into their seats and heave out relaxed sighs. Lips quiver slightly, eyes glaze, a nose is scratched, and nervous glances are bounced in all directions and in none. Conversation stops abruptly as greedy hands fumble for their drug, their connection to an alternate reality—their perceived lifeline.
Many have used a tool to "check in" at the venue, to announce to friends and family—and of course, would-be burglars of their homes—that they are out on the town. They are at the "cool place", they have made it and are waiting for the show, they got good tickets. Friends and family sit beside them, either staring glumly at an empty stage (like me), or are themselves announcing to the world that they are in Section 107, Row 5, and Seat  13. This information is no doubt useful to stalkers and predators. Yet they type on, and they squint even harder as the lights dim.
The band has arrived. People are cheering. Not all. Many still are staring...
At a glowing screen. What at first I assumed were guide lights on the stairs are instead a random pattern of light fixtures, displaying in too-small font the statuses of countless individuals. Some of whom may even be at the show, but many who are themselves announcing their location, likes, dislikes, and opinions on the latest Hollywood divorce. Everyone is greedily pouring out drivel into the vast gaping void called cyberspace. And they think somehow this is important. Meanwhile, the band is putting on one hell of a show, should you care to glance up from your hand-held crack-in-a-phone.
I look around again and wonder why?
What is the point?
Not necessarily the point of the phones, but what is the point of even leaving one's home? You have traveled with friends to see a show, yet you have said no words to them—only texted pixels to who-knows-who. Seventy-five friends in an online "social" group are now painfully aware that you are at the concert and they are (most likely) not. There is nothing social about sitting behind the bunker of a computer monitor and typing words into the ether.
Why leave home when your world is contained within a tiny screen and constant inane ramblings held therein?
I owned one of those devices once, but did not renew the contract. I could not understand the purpose of the device, apart from the fact that it chained me permanently and ubiquitously to my work—I have no desire to announce to the world that I am in the store, looking at pancake mixes. It seems strange to check into a restaurant with my whole family, since it obviously gives those less scrupulous individuals an invite to my home; or worse, a predator the exact location of my children. So my device sits in the garage, at the bottom of my drill bag, and probably has a cracked screen. Oh well, I just couldn't understand it.
I still don't.
As I look out my window at cars going by, I realized the need to drive and focus has also vanished. Three out of the last four drivers were texting, and the fourth was on the phone. Granted, my sampling techniques would have failed any dissertation, but that isn't the point. If all we are doing in our lives is talking into a small box and typing 140 character proclamations, there should be little need for anything else. We can do that safely from any confined space... after all, as Red Green pointed out, when he sees someone talking into thin air, he doesn't think of a phone. Just the word "cell."
I'm sure we could all be happy in little padded rooms, where we could freely send out messages and receive them, where we could announce that we "Like" the manufacturer of the door knobs, and order pizza from our hand-held devices. Oh, and share that with all of our friends. We could even invite those friends to our cell and we could all sit together and text—just not to each other.
Who is mad here? Sure, I get funny looks when I announce I don't have a smart phone. But believe me, you're getting equally funny looks as you drive your minivan full of kids off an embankment because you are tweeting that your son just said "mama."
That was over-the-top, and I apologize. But it is not far from a reality that is possible. A very scary world where no one speaks in words or writes anything on paper. It would be like going to a popular a concert and missing the whole show because you were announcing to a world made of 1s and 0s that you were at a concert.
Oh, wait.

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