My Big Hang-Up in a Connected World

One man’s rage against the communication revolution and the dying of civility

Smithsonian Last Page
Has technology created a nation of zombies? Illustration by Eric Palma

My 81-year-old mother was sitting solemnly in a pew at Christ Church. It was a memorial service for a 101-year-old friend. In the midst of the pastor’s eulogy, my mother’s cellphone went off. The ringtone wasn’t a dirge by Chopin or Handel but the pulsating beat of “Are You Ready?” sung in full falsetto by the Chipmunks. Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Cassie, had programmed the phone.

Every head in the church turned upon my mother. Poor soul, she didn’t even know how to turn it off. Fearing it might erupt again, Mother sat on the phone, hoping to smother it. Seconds later the chapel was again filled with the sound of Chipmunks; it was Cassie calling to see if one of her friends might catch a ride home from school.

Like me, my mother was not quite ready for the communication revolution. As a teacher of journalism, I tell myself that all this connectedness is the link that joins the Family of Man. But in my quieter moments (of which there are now not many), I see we’ve created a nation of zombies—heads down, thumbs on tiny keyboards, mindless millions staring blankly, shuffling toward some unseen horizon. To them, the rest of us are invisible. Not long ago, a colleague was startled to see a young woman approaching; she had been too absorbed in her texting to notice the words “Men’s Room” on the door. For one brief shining moment, she was at a loss for words.

These days, I, too, carry a cellphone clipped to my belt, hoping the pod people (er...iPod people) will mistake me for one of their own. But I rarely turn it on. Judging from all the urgency around me, I alone seem to have nothing to say, nothing that demands I communicate that instant. I await no call, text or e-mail of such import that it couldn’t be served as well with a stamp and a complete sentence, both of which seem destined for history’s dustbin.

For many, wandering off the grid is death itself. Legend has it that when evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944, she was buried with a connected telephone so she could alert the world to her resurrection. (Of such stories, journalists say: “Too good to check.”) This generation may well choose to be entombed with their BlackBerries, ready to text that final OMG! from the other side.

IMO (“In My Opinion”) we’ve gone too far. Not everything has to be shared the moment it is conceived. (We cover our mouths when we cough, why not when we think?) I say any thought that doesn’t have a shelf life beyond five seconds is best left unarticulated. Alexander Graham Bell liked keeping in touch as much as the next guy, but during the ceremony following his death on August 2, 1922, telephones across North America were silenced in tribute to their inventor. Quaint as that may sound today, I wonder if a little silence and some self-restraint might be in order. Like my poor mother, it seems few of us now know when or how to turn it all off. Perhaps the Chipmunks asked the right question: “Are you ready?” For me, the answer is “No way.”

Ted Gup is professor and chair of the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston. He is the author of several books.

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