I first saw the man at the airport. He was on his Blackberry…or maybe it was an iPhone or an Android. He was reading or texting, preoccupied, his gaze never leaving the object in his hand.
All around him were people likewise fixated on their various devices. Some nodded in time to silent music or held murmured conversations with invisible colleagues. Occasionally, they glanced up, only to transfer their attention to an electronic device at some remove—an arrival notice, a gate number or one of the ubiquitous wide-screens delivering an endless stream of infotainment.
This is the new paradigm, I thought. We’re addicted to input and to the devices that deliver it. Outside our perimeters, we are barraged with sounds and images; inside our small bit of real estate, mostly taken up by our physical selves, we have the illusion of controlling the flow of data, receiving only what we want to when we want it. But we are caught by our need to be up-to-date, ahead of the curve, not in the moment but in the next moment, somewhere else; anywhere else.
On board, I found myself next to the same man. He offered a polite smile; then bent over his phone urgently, as if to squeeze in every last bit of communication possible before the jet doors were closed and we were asked to shut off our electronic devices. Immediately after takeoff, my seat companion powered up his laptop and set to work for the duration of the flight. I kept my head down as well, reading. Occasionally I glanced out the window. It was a beautiful day for flying.
When the wheels hit the ground, I quickly turned on my cell phone, as did everyone else on the plane, scanning for important updates we might have missed. Force of habit, I told myself, although in truth the habit is no more than ten years old and most of us have been flying a lot longer than that.
I drove to my hotel on a tiny beach in Key Largo for my first day of vacation. It was warm, windy and sunny. Yet I ended up in the lobby with my laptop. Just a few things to check, I promised myself. One hour later, I was still online and the sun was going down.
At dinner that night I sat alone with my food, a glass of wine and my phone, trying to read Facebook updates on my small screen. The phone is a terrific dinner companion for a single person; you never feel alone or disconnected and you look busy, maybe even important. When the waiter asks if you’ll be dining alone, you can reply in the affirmative while keeping your eyes down and ignoring his expression of pity. Still, it’s a stupid activity to engage in on a balmy night in south Florida so I raised my head to look around. At the next table, I noticed a group of middle-aged people saying grace. No, wait; they each had phones and they were wrapped up in various efforts to reach out to someone—anyone?—who wasn’t sitting at the table. Occasionally someone tossed out a comment and there was a burst of conversation. But even then, no one made eye contact. I considered that a group of strangers could sit down at the table and start eating and the original group might not notice. The thought amused me; it also depressed me.
The next morning I was up bright and early…and on my computer. After a couple of hours, I stood up, powered down and got ready to go out. I reached for my cell phone and changed my mind. Who needed to reach me? Who did I need to contact? What was the meaning of the word “relax” in our wired/wireless world anyway? And how was I going to get rid of the crick in my neck unless I lifted my head?
The beach was tiny but absolutely beautiful. Looking out across the gulf, no towers were visible, no cranes, no high-rise buildings; just water. A few people milled about, including, to my surprise, my seat buddy from the flight down. He’d obviously reunited with his family—two small children, a boy and a girl and an attractive woman I took to be his wife. But he was still tethered to his phone, perched on the edge of his chair, squinting at the small screen, as were several others. A flock of pelicans swooped low to the water, delighting the little girl. “Daddy, daddy,” she cried to her multi-tasking father. “Look at the birds!” she cried. He waved, but never took his eyes off his phone.
I didn’t need to be told twice, however. I looked up. Watching the birds, warmed by the sun, I stretched my neck and eased into my surroundings.
images: cio.energy.gov; brown pelicans by Mia McPherson (http://www.onthewingphotography.com)