The New Cigarette

I fly on a fairly regular basis and these trips always begin with a 6 a.m. flight, which means the plane boards around 5:30.  Because I’m a frequent flyer, I always board in Zone 2.  I’m not frequent enough to qualify for Zone 1, but I’m still among the first on the plane, which gives me a chance to settle in before my seatmate arrives.

I rarely speak to strangers on airplanes, so elaborate avoidance schemes are unnecessary, but invariably the person who sits next to me stows his or her carry-on, fastens her or his seatbelt and pulls out his or her smart phone and begins scrolling through her or his email.

Really?  Email?  At 5:40 a.m.?  From whom, the Union Bank of Switzerland?  Not only that, but guess what?  I’ve got a smart phone, too, so even from the next seat I can tell that you’re not looking at new email, but just shuffling through crap you’ve already read.

I already had my book out and after the perfunctory nod to make sure you saw that I wasn’t sitting on your seat belt, I was already (for the most part) ignoring you.  In fact, the only reason I pay these people any attention at all is because I couldn’t help noticing these bizarre, pointless smart phone ceremonies and now I keep stealing glances out of pure bafflement.

What, no book, newspaper, People magazine, even?  Do you need me, a stranger to think you’re so busy and important that you’ve got to dash off two more quick mails before the cabin door closes?  (Paris: sell!  London: buy!)  Too soon to grab the Sky Mall catalogue?  Go ahead, browse, I won’t think less of you (or at least no less than I do for your phony – no pun intended – scrolling).  Whatever happened to sitting quietly with one’s hands folded?  Are we so uncomfortable with our own thoughts?

A few years ago, in the breakfast room at a hotel, a women’s college athletic team was at the next table and as the young women set their dishes down, they all bowed their heads and brought their hands together.  I thought they were saying grace, but it went on for so long.  Then I realized they were all texting.

Yes, I have a smart phone.  An iPhone, even.  I was making do with a fairly utilitarian Blackberry Pearl until I inadvertently put it in the laundry on New Year’s Eve.  I admit to taking photos, having some music on there, surfing the web and checking my email, but I try not to be neurotic or obnoxious about it.  I have not loaded the phone up with apps and am resisting the impulse to do so.  I’m firm in my belief that we have to control the machines, not the other way around.

I was on jury duty this week and was planning to build a post around that experience, but my service was so brief and inconsequential that such a post would be even more pointless than this one (and that’s going some).  The only things worth reporting are that the non-public hallway of the Chittenden County Superior Court (where the judges have their chambers) mysteriously smells of frankincense and that smart phones are the new cigarette.

Well back in the last century, when I was newspaper reporter working the courthouse, I used to sit in the hallway with the bailiffs, waiting for juries to return their verdicts and we’d pass the time smoking.  Now, during the many fallow moments that are the hallmark of the judicial system, everyone reflexively whips out their smart phone and texts or surfs or plays a video game.

Last week, Google introduced their augmented reality glasses.  At first I thought, “That stuff’s years away, I’ll never go for it.”  Then I remembered how recently it seemed that my early adopter friend Matt pulled out his “personal digital assistant” and started writing on it with a contrived stylus that I was sure he’d lose.  He did lose it, but not the way I thought and, as I said, now I have one too.

© Mark Floegel, 2012

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