I finally committed to memory the name of the nice lady who takes my mail at the post office. It’s Deena.
Deena decorated her Christmas tree on Thanksgiving. Her home is the holiday gathering place for both her and her husband’s parents. Her mother is from Ireland and goes back home some, though not as much as she did when she was younger. Deena has traveled to Ireland a number of times, too. She has cousins there.
Amazing what you can learn when you put down your cell phone.
This particular encounter had begun like too many of my encounters now begin — by my exchanging pleasantries with someone and then burying my head in my email while that person performs a task that is useful for me. For some reason, I’ve grown to believe that 10 messages sent from afar – eight of them mass emails intended to sell me something — are of greater value and interest than the person in front of me.
I am not alone in this. It is becoming a bit of a challenge to have actual, undistracted conversations these days, what with all those cell phones buzzing on the table. I pity the poor public speaker trying to hold the attention of his or her tablet-wielding audience.
Has there ever been a social experiment in mass communication that has happened this rapidly? According to the website About.com, after Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press in 1440, it was another 12 years before the first book, the Gutenberg Bible, was mass published. There was a time span of 39 years between the telephone’s invention in 1876 and the establishment of transcontinental service by overhead wire. Television signals were first transmitted over long distance in 1927; nine years later there were only 200 in use worldwide.
In contrast, the word “Internet” wasn’t defined until 1995 by something called the Federal Networking Council, and at the time only 14 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they went online. As of May 2013, 85 percent said they did.
The widespread acceptance of smartphones has advanced even faster. The iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. Tech analyst IDC predicts a billion smartphones and 227 million tablets will be bought worldwide this year.
These are, of course, all incredible tools. They make it possible to accomplish work, engage in commerce and communicate with loved ones from almost anywhere. Wives across America no longer have to nag their husbands to pull over at a gas station and ask for directions. You can even communicate with someone in Ireland while waiting in line at the post office.
But all this worldwide interconnectivity can come at a price: Less connection to the people we are with.
The Internet is like a chainsaw — wonderfully useful, but not something that should remain running all the time. I’m not sure if our brains are designed to be able to communicate this way. We just can’t focus as we once did. We certainly don’t focus on each other.
At some point at the post office, I looked up as Deena quietly weighed and stamped my packages. I realized how rude I had become. She’d always been so friendly, and now she had been forced to perform this task in a businesslike manner while I stared at my phone. A tool meant to connect me to others had led to this disconnection, but it wasn’t the tool’s fault.
So I put it in my pocket and talked to her about Ireland. She was standing in front of me, and she had actually been there.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.