What are we doing now?
There’s nothing like entering a dimmed theater to dramatize how thoroughly our senses slam shut, especially if it’s a sunny day outside. Sensory deprivation, that old story of having to rely on – even if just for a moment – yourself.
Stepping through the swinging doors at the back of the auditorium, I’m initially blinded by the near-dark, my irises shocked, my feet unsteady and stumbling along the aisle, trying to zero in on a good, centrally located seat.
But if I glance from side to side, just focus like an airplane pilot approaching a runway with those little marker lights flickering in the dark, or pretend I’m Magellan trying to find my position, steering by starlight, I can navigate through any strait, no matter how hazardous, thanks to the theater public’s insatiable urge to fiddle with their cell phones.
The impulse might seem completely understandable, because the movie hasn’t started, so what else is there to do? Certainly not talk with the person sitting beside you!
For one thing, I think letting a lot of people who aren’t with you in the theater know that you are at the movies is a questionable strategy for maintaining any sort of disguise that the darkness affords you. Bilbo Baggins had a similar complication while trying to sneak his newly acquired Precious away from Gollum, the ring glowing in his pocket the whole time, insisting that it be taken out. Harry Potter probably felt the same itch while masked by his cloak of invisibility – a compulsion to illuminate at least the tip of his wand.
Of course, you don’t have to go to the movies to notice how pervasive the use of  handheld electronic devices has become. It’s also a bit perverse, that having bought tickets for a big screen adventure, so many people can’t put aside their little screens.
Sensory deprivation is apparently a challenge in this technology-driven world. Researchers at the University of Glasgow found half of their respondents checking email at least every hour, with some clicking at 30 to 40 times each hour. They likened these users’ behavior to an addiction, a dysfunction that I would add seems to be happening at the cell level.
I still can’t get over when someone near me, perhaps in the same grocery aisle or checkout line, suddenly starts talking, as if to the air, inevitably beginning the conversation with the explanation of where he or she is located at this particular moment.
I have overheard so many “what are you doing now?” conversations that I could be labeled an eavesdropper, except that I have no desire to listen in. I just can’t avoid it. But now I understand that maybe the person answering the call can’t help it either.
Texting does limit the intrusion upon an uninterested public, and I am amazed to see what fat human fingers can accomplish on those teeny-weeny keypads.
When I taught high school, no class period passed where I did not have to warn at least one student to put his or her cell phone away.  One girl in particular after being warned once, complied with a smile and put her cell phone into her purse.  I thanked her. She smiled again. I continued my lesson until I noticed that her hand was still in her purse. But she was looking at me, watching what I wrote on the chalkboard, nodding, and all while her purse twitched on the top of her desk. To this day I suspect she had x-ray vision.
I should be clear, I am not trying to preach intolerance for the public’s use of handheld devices. I am just astounded to notice how many people seem to have relationships with their cell phones. Dating couples tentatively holding hands, but each with a firm grasp on a handy cell phone in the other hand. We wear our devices like jewelry, one eye on the traffic, the other on the possibility that someone needs to know what we’re doing. We sit down at a table and the cell phone gets placed on the tabletop, beside the bottle of beer, like a conversation opener.
A lovely old lady named Gladys once made a salient point about phones. Her phone started ringing as I got up to leave. She followed me to the door, the phone still ringing. I told her I would let myself out if she wanted to answer her phone. She winked at me and said, “I got that phone for my convenience, not for whoever is calling me.”
When she made this remark, cell phones didn’t exist. At the time, my home telephone was one of the last party lines in Montezuma County. Gladys has been disconnected from this earth for nearly 25 years, but she’s still coming through, even more clearly, without a phone.
– David Feela