Should People Who Are Present Matter More?

I’ve been noticing something lately: cell phones, blackberrys, instant messaging, and text messaging are fundamentally changing the way people interact with each other. (I know, I know… about now, some of you are saying “Well, Duh!” – but just stay with me for a minute).

People no longer feel a need to communicate with the people who are in their presence. They can just as quickly whip out a cell phone or a text messaging application and communicate with someone who matters to them, either because it relates to their job or because it is a family member or friend.

In a way, its insulting to those around them, even to strangers.

Those whom people happen to randomly encounter on the street, in a bus, in the airport, in a waiting room may as well not even exist to those who are wirelessly enabled communicators. As Sweet puts it in his most recent book (see the last post), they are merely objects in the environment to be navigated.

There is an up-side to this, to be sure. Technology allows me to communicate with my wife and family, even when I am hundreds (or thousands) of miles away. It keeps me taking care of work-related issues even when I’m not in the office.

But at the same time, it is systematically stripping people (myself included, though I don’t think I’m as bad as lots of folks) of the benefit of random encounters in the real world.

There is something very disturbing to me about that disconnect. I see it when a middle-aged businessman gets on a shuttle with me and speaks the entire time – often with a sense of assertivenes that seems inappropriate in that context – to an “invisible” person who is on the other end of his cell phone connection. The only clue that the other person in the coversation is not imaginary is one of those blasted earpieces that communicates wirelessly with his cell phone.
Sheila and I saw it the other day in a restauraunt, too. A guy was out with a very attractive girl, obviously on a date. The two were sitting at a table. Want to know what he was doing? Talking on his cell phone – and for an extended period of time at that! Did he think it was impressing her? If so, she didn’t look too impressed.

I don’t even understand what that guy was thinking. Why ask her out if, for all practical purposes, he wasn’t going to talk to her for a large part of the date? Does he not understand how that must make her feel?

So there you have it. All of this technology does a great job of connecting us to the people we want to be connected with. Thats great. But it also has the potential to disconnect us from those who are in our physical presence. That, it seems to me, is not so great.

Anyone else noticing this trend?

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