I find myself writing this piece out of both frustration and experience (as recent as Friday night). For the first time, my friends and I decided to do an annual Christmas dinner and we spent it at a Manhattan steakhouse. It was planned for about a week, the guest list changed almost every day, but finally we were there — the work week ended, and we found ourselves looking at an immense wine list, debating what cut of beef to order, and reflecting (somewhat) on how lucky we are to be in a position to do so.
What is it one looks forward to when sitting around a table of eight of your friends? Is it the decor, the menu, the surrounding parties? Well, each one of those could be part of it, but to me, it is the conversation, the debate, and the small talk. Each and every time I am in this setting or similar ones, I should walk away from that evening with a story, an "inside joke," learning something about you that I had not known before. Much to my dismay, I learned almost too much about those in company, and the almighty cell phone is to blame.
So here I am, at the dinner table, and at one point, 6 of the 8 guys had their cell phones out and were immersed in another world. Call me old school, but I turned mine off the minute I entered the subway — I am out to dinner, and evening which calls for no interruptions. I found myself watching the phone being passed around looking at pictures of former classmates, obscure “humorous” images, irrelevant post cards, and time ticked away as conversation dwindled. “Oh, let me see that picture!” “Pass it this way!” It was like being surrounded by kids in a candy store (though I bet they had more conversation than we did).
Once I had turned my phone back on at the end of the night, I found myself in a world of text messages from those who were going to meet us after, “Is dinner over?” “What should we do?” Group texts, individual texts, multiple texts (as if I was ignoring them?). It was a $2000 tab, and yet all I could take away from the evening was the waiter spoke more than others.
As I was trying to rationalize why I was feeling so down, I decided to do some quick research and I came upon a PBS op-ed from 2006 which argued, "If cell phones were first rung up as an alternative avenue to communication they've graduated into the only major expressway for our conversations — and we're all but ignoring the scenic route we called small talk." On a whole, cell phones are attached to our hips and have carved themselves in our daily lives more than anything else — it is your alarm, your newspaper, your iPod, your email, your text messages, your phone calls, your GPS, your camera, and so on. It is in your pants pocket, blazer pocket, pocketbook or in your hand. The charger is next to your bed (except for the one in your car and at the office). The monthly bill is more than you pay for the subway ticket. The case is more expensive than a wallet and you have spent more money on headphones than you did on a college textbook.
When you catch the sunset or view the mountain range, your first instinct is not to reflect or in some cases even process the awesomeness of what you are seeing, but to take a photograph, hashtag it, and share it on every social media platform — and then, when a wave of “likes,” “shares,” and “comments” come into your life — you must earnestly respond to them all, no matter where your life is at that moment. Our phones follow us to the gym, the bathroom, the dinner table, and to bed; their ring tones pollute a quiet theater, an executive meeting, or somber library; their constant vibrations make us jump to respond (even when it is not vibrating).
They cause serious motor vehicle accidents both from the pedestrian who is engrossed in a “serious” text chat with their partner or from the driver who cannot wait before telling their parents what to order from the Chinese restaurant, despite being only 4 minutes away from home. They force our memories to remain short as the power of search engines are at our finger tips. Ask me to remember a name, a birthday, an address, a phone number, a job title, a cross street, a subway line – impossible! We can simply find it through the phone. I could go on and on.
This is not a scientific piece where I have tested data and brought proven facts to the piece, but it is a reflection on my own experience, which I would bet is very similar to others, if not most. The technological breakthroughs have been immense, but it is just one more addiction we can add to our lives — one that we seemingly cannot live nor want to live without. If I cannot even hold a conversation during a meal that cost more than most people in the world make in a year, and the only constant that exists in all of the variables I listed above is a cell phone, then perhaps I have already finished my test.