- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

One afternoon, I was at the gym, stretching on the floor next to the running track. The place was empty, save for a solitary jogger doing laps. So when I heard a voice talking intermittently, I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Only after the runner had passed by a couple of times did I finally realize: The jogger was yakking on his cell phone.

That was about the most unlikely occasion for a Nokia moment I could imagine. But my imagination is clearly inadequate to modern realities. The other day, I walked into an airport restroom. There, someone was engaged in a lively chat from inside a toilet stall, amid loud flushes. For the sake of the person on the other end, I hope the connection wasn’t too clear.

By now, we’re all accustomed to seeing our fellow human beings make use of their cell phones while driving, walking down the sidewalk, riding the bus, standing in line at the grocery, getting dressed in the locker room, sitting at a ballgame or sharing a meal in a restaurant. Cabdrivers feel no compunction about carrying on phone conversations in strange tongues in the presence of passengers.

But the few barriers of etiquette that once existed are rapidly disappearing. It’s getting so no activity, occasion or place is off-limits to wireless communication. I dread to imagine what’s next. Doctors calling their financial planners while performing surgery? Outfielders making dinner reservations during pitching changes? Brides answering the ring on their way up the aisle?

It wouldn’t surprise me to go to a funeral and see the pallbearers whip out phones as they lug the deceased to his final resting place. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be stunned to hear chirping from inside the casket.

A long time ago, say about 1998, most people treated cell phones as handy gadgets that often made life easier. But today, many people have come to think of them the way heart patients regard their pacemakers: absolutely indispensable for day-to-day survival. They can no more refrain from using them than they can refrain from breathing.

There are two regrettable phenomena here. One is the nagging sense of needing to be accessible by phone at all times, in all circumstances. Though I rarely use my cell phone, I get a pang anytime I neglect to bring it along when I’m running errands or commuting to work. What if the president desperately needs my advice on Iraq and I’m not there to take his call? What if my son wants to ask who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?

A colleague discovered the extent of his enslavement when his local network went down while he was dining out with his wife one Saturday night. He didn’t need to call anyone, but he shudders visibly recalling the experience: “I felt naked. I felt adrift at sea. I felt like my kids were home trashing the house and I couldn’t check up on them.”

The other problem is that some people just can’t stand to deprive themselves of electronically assisted stimulation even briefly. A true cell-phone addict trembles at the prospect of going for, say, a half-hour jog and, for that entire desolate period, being utterly cut off from interaction with someone who is not physically present.

The feeling must be something like what an alcoholic feels when passing through a dry county. An overwhelming craving consumes the poor wretch, and he must do whatever he can to satisfy it.

Hard as it may be to believe, people once managed to fill these idle moments without hitting a “send” key. They read books or newspapers. They gazed out the window. They savored pleasant memories. They simmered over injustice. They pondered the mysteries of the universe. They wondered why no one had invented cell phones.

Introspection and even boredom can be useful. Who knows what we’re losing by depriving ourselves of occasional silence and solitude?

If Isaac Newton had enjoyed access to the Verizon network, we might still be wondering why apples fall downward. William Shakespeare would have composed nothing more than clever voice-mail messages. Thanks to the incessant use of cell phones, we never have to be alone with our thoughts.

You remember what thoughts are, right?

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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