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Wes Carter: Cell phones creating a nation of strangers

I drove into Buffalo to go to a shop one day, but when I arrived and tried to park, a young man was standing in the street – texting. I pulled to within fifteen feet of him and blew my horn. He never looked up, still texting. The rear of my car was obstructing the traffic behind, so I drove as slowly as possible to get out of the way and mainly to avoid this mooncalf standing in front, now 10 feet away. I blew again. This time he looked up, though briefly, then continued to text. Usually I’m quick to solve little dilemmas like this, and I certainly had an answer for this one as well. It would, however, have required some jail time. I blew a third time. He finally finished whatever he was doing and moved on.

What I had just witnessed was unbelievable in a way, though I must admit that more than being disturbed, I was fascinated by the intensity with which that little phone had garnered so much of his attention, and to be honest, my attention and imagination as well. One sees that kind of intensity everywhere. I’m sure we have all heard of or have witnessed people running into walls, stumbling into pools, missing buses or even risking their lives for a text or two, and all because of the magnetism in that little hand-held invention. Everywhere heads are bowed in extreme devotion. What is the fascination?

One friend of mine, a professor of psychology, says he’s stumped when it comes to reasons for the love of the cell. One day, just out of curiosity, he asked his students if they were willing to give up one of their prized possessions, and what would be that possession. While many items were indeed considered and some offered up to sacrifice, none included the cell. Under no circumstances was the phone to go. Krista, another friend and recent UB grad, knows all too well and might be a little closer to an explanation when talking about her generation. To miss a call is to think they are missing the most important call of their lives. When asked about those youthful attitudes towards the dangers of texting and driving, her answer is curt: Selfish, they feel themselves invincible.

As with other challenges to healthy living, there are explanations, and one day social scientists will ferret out the reasons for our fascination and addiction to the cell, and the enormous hours we spend in their use. They will probably reiterate that we still remain that nation of strangers, talking very little to our neighbors, if we know them at all, or to relatives for whom we may care even less. What role, if any, does loneliness have to play in all this? Either way, the phone may be helping to alleviate the distance between people, or it may be helping to create it. Maybe I will understand better the next time I see people sitting in a restaurant texting and having a good time, while those sitting across from them are doing the same.

I must admit I truly like my cell and have no plans ever to give it up, but I don’t know which should be considered the more humorous: the person who texts while on a date in a theater, or the mother who uses her cell to call her son to dinner from his room on the second floor. Nation of strangers? Whether we want to admit it or not, technology shapes our behavior. Invent it and we will use it, no matter the cost.