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Eye on the News

Jerry Weinberger
Gizmos and the City
How our new toys can derange civic life
22 January 2010

I’m all for the electronic revolution, a real marvel of advanced capitalism. But one has to admit that all the gizmos have degraded common politeness.

For starters, it’s gotten harder and harder on the streets to tell who’s crazy and who’s not. I first noticed this change a couple of years ago when I saw a suit-and-tie coming toward me talking loudly to nobody. I first thought he was nuts, but that’s because I couldn’t see the tiny microphone on the wire from the cell phone in his pocket to his ear. Today, all kinds of people on the streets of Washington, D.C., where I now live, walk around empty-handed, talking to people who physically aren’t there. No topic seems too personal to share with everybody within 50 yards: lovers’ break-up, a divorce settlement, financial ruin, a misbehaving child. No profanity is beyond the pale: after all, it’s a private conversation.

More bizarre, if less obnoxious, are people wired to their MP3s. Recently on the Metro a skinny guy about 50, with a balding pate encased in a white stocking and wearing wrap-around shades, was bobbing on his seat and making weird gesticulations with his hands: so in thrall was he to the tune blasting his eardrums to shreds. Harmless enough, I thought; but, still, one couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t about to go off his rocker.

Positively disturbing was the sight of a young couple, holding hands as if on a date, talking on separate cell phones, each to someone else (or maybe it was a conference call). Cell phone multi-tasking has now become multi-relating. I wondered if these two turn off their cells when they turn off the lights. In restaurants, it’s awful to see a diner stare at the ceiling while the person across the table blabs to or “texts” someone miles away.

Politeness seems a lost art in the age of gizmos. At a recent wedding I attended, as the bride walked down the aisle, a cell phone rang out the William Tell overture. For some reason, when using cell phones, people can’t talk within a civil decibel range. Writhing to the music on the subway isn’t the height of decorum, either. And if watching out for others on the road is politeness as well as self-preservation, then drivers talking on their cells are the rudest people on the planet.

Anyone who rides a motorcycle, as I did until a couple of years ago, knows that a driver on a cell phone is the vehicular equivalent of an IED. Driving on the Michigan State University campus (where I teach) is scary, because the young pedestrians are encased in wired cocoons, oblivious of the traffic and deaf to the sound of your car or even the horn. A couple of years ago, a wired student walked right in front of a speeding, and blaring, railroad train.

Last year, while I waited in the Lansing airport for my flight to D.C., a woman returning to Oregon from a campus event made three consecutive cell-phone calls to relatives back home. The calls, audible to everyone at the gate, were identical: the “workshop” was terrific and the campus was like a park, but she didn’t understand “how anyone could live in a blighted dump like Lansing.” Now, I prefer D.C. to my old domestic territory of Lansing. But the folks in Lansing are good people, and only their Midwestern reserve kept one of them from slapping this braying donkey upside the head.

The gizmos are great, let me say it again. But our manners need to catch up with them to restore civility and the line between public and private behavior—assuming that’s still possible.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked.

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