I recently found myself in a busy airport. As I chose to rebel against the moving walkways in favor of an extra 50 feet of exercise, I caught myself staring at the mobs of people sitting at each terminal I passed.
Almost all were sitting within 6 inches of another human being, and almost all of them sat in complete silence. I passed by what was labeled a “charging station,” but could only humorously note that the people seated there looked more like prisoners shackled to a wall, coddling their devices. They stared at them, finding answers to questions about high school acquaintances that weren’t ever asked. The airports I visit are most certainly getting lonelier.
I’ve developed the somewhat brazen habit of engaging these people when they finally sit next to me at the terminal or on the plane. I make it a point to compete with the ever-nagging blinking and clinking of their little plastic thieves. I do this primarily because I’m scared about our ability as human beings to connect to each other face to face.
For the last five years of my career, before working in commercial lending and consulting, I was a bank manager responsible for a team of employees. Over that span of time I saw that fewer and fewer people under the age of 30 had the ability to look me in the eye when I spoke to them. A few had the ability to plan a productive day absent of cell phone use. Even fewer could resist pushing the pause button on life to take a picture, send a tweet or post something to their social networking pages. Disruptive technologies have changed my work, for better and for worse.
This is the part of my column when I start talking about what it was like when I was a kid. This is the part in which I tell you about how my one-room schoolhouse teacher taught me to shake hands with adults, say “sir” and “ma’am,” and how to listen with intent. I could tell you about how my parents encouraged me to read classic literature or how I worked hard around the ranch to pay for my privileges. I’m not going to indulge this temptation, however, because it doesn’t matter. It was a different time and place. This is our time. This is our place.
I hate to think that we are allowing generations of young people to stumble into adulthood. With the new year rapidly approaching, perhaps it is time for each of us to evaluate how we are allowing technology to affect our lives and the lives of our family. Especially in this wonderful community of so many opportunities and privileges, I hope you will ask yourself the following:
Is your cell phone the first and last thing you look at each day? This is a reality for around 29 percent of cell phone owners. Can you survive more than a few hours without looking at your phone? Nearly 35 percent of users claim that they can’t. Do you drive or perform other activities requiring your full attention while using a cell phone? More than 30 percent of respondents in this particular survey said they did, and this is likely understated. For all you singles out there, do you ask someone out on a first date via text? Twenty percent of users do (for the love of humanity, if this is you, please stop — you are making it too easy for normal humans like me). Do you ever engage in a phone break, meaning you turn off your device for an extended period to pay attention to other matters? Only around 30 percent of users do.
We are a community known for our outdoor and cultural activities, and yet each and every day I witness people paying more attention to their technology than their surroundings. The next time you find yourself next to someone with a blinking and clinking piece of time-sucking plastic sadness, I encourage you to engage them in conversation — especially if they are under the age of 30. You never know, you might actually be the fascinating disruption that they truly need to turn off their device.
Benjamin A. Gochberg lives in Avon.