Consider three vignettes. Each unfolded during a May weekend in Boston. While highlighting the pernicious effects of mobile technology, these incidents say as much about human choices as they do about gadgets themselves.
1) Near the end of a Friday evening commute, beneath downtown Boston, a subway car plowed into the rear of another Green Line trolley, injuring 49 commuters. The operator immediately admitted to being distracted by the act of sending a text message to a friend on his cellphone.
2) Minutes later, two miles west at Fenway Park, fans roared in joy as the Red Sox tied a spirited game against the rival Tampa Bay Rays with a three-run homer off the bat of slugger Jason Bay. The packed grandstand was rocking as I rose to my feet to follow the towering arc of the ball. But two nearby fans did not return my offer of a high-five. They were too busy operating their smart phones.
3) Thirty-six hours later, the Minuteman Bikeway was filling up with joggers and cyclists enjoying the first truly warm weekend morning of the notoriously late-arriving New England springtime. Flowering trees were blooming at last. A great variety of songbirds, just back from winter hibernation, were serenading the eager folks jogging and pedaling along. (Note to self: find a good guide to songbirds of the Bay State.) But many missed the delightful natural concert. Their ears were wired to iPods and Walkmans. I even spied a few parents sporting earphones, despite the presence of their children inches away, strapped into carrier seats on the back of their bikes.
Anybody with a conscience will be horrified at the serious harm inflicted by the malfeasant transit driver. Within days this abuse was addressed by changes in local public policy. If you share my distress at the opportunities missed in the other episodes for human connection and sheer joy, then you will join me in hoping for changes in the personal policies people set for their use of technology. On both micro and macro levels, our society has some hard thinking to do regarding appropriate limits on distracting gadgets.
Full disclosure: I may be the least qualified person to make recommendations on such matters. Although not a pure Luddite, I have somehow steered clear of most of the distractions that enthrall the tech-savvy. I have never been on Facebook or MySpace, the major social networking sites. I have never owned a cellphone or sent a text message. I have blogged exactly four times. I don’t know a Blackberry from a Blu-Ray.
But I have seen enough to notice that American society has been grappling of late with the theme of mindfulness, or the lack of it in our world today. On the positive side, I was delighted to learn that my alma mater, Amherst College, recently instituted a “day of mindfulness” on its campus, offering meditation breaks and encouraging students to take a media and technology fast. I was also pleased to hear the filmmaker Ken Burns, in his recent commencement address at Boston College, issue a warning about how mobile technology disengages people from one another, even as it purports to connect us. I believe we are witnessing at least a modest revival of interest in what Thoreau expressed in Walden: a yearning to live life more deliberately.
I offer a final incident from my own city. The beloved leafy Boston Common swarms in springtime with panhandlers. A homeless gentleman seemed inordinately glad for the few coins I fished out of my pocket as I walked down a bending path there recently. He sighed that practically everyone passing by that afternoon was, in his words, “out of reach.” I interpret this to mean that most of my fellow strollers were locked into the interior world of music streaming through ear pods or in cellphone conversation.
Fiddling with a handheld device turns out to be the perfect way to avoid eye contact with a beggar and the perfect excuse not to hear a request for spare change. Now, I hold no particular brief for the practice of panhandling. But the incident did lead me to think of the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke’s Gospel, in which the very existence of the needy man at his gate went unacknowledged by the affluent man. If technology is rendering this sort of deliberate oblivion more likely, then let’s unplug and make a choice for immediacy.