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The Tyranny of Connectivity
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
For most of my adult life I've dreaded hearing a specific, four-word sentence more than any other, and no, the sentence isn't "You are under arrest" or "We've detected a growth." The four words, which sound innocuous enough at first blush, are actually teeming with menace: "We need to talk." Every time I've heard that deathless phrase my stomach automatically ices over and my heart rate triples. It is the absolute death knell for any would-be paramour. And it's remarkable how "what is needed to talk about" is never anything good: it's always some red-faced admission or irrevocable decision whose finality feels like the slamming of an iron door. And usually, the "talking" is pretty one-sided--the give-and take in those conversations is roughly equivalent to the dialogue that exists between a circuit court judge and a defendant.
For a brief period in my thirties, "We need to talk" was supplanted by another lethal phrase of four words, this one an interrogative: "Are you Chris Colcord?" Which was usually preceded by a harsh rapping on the door and followed by a dead sprint into a soybean field. Even today, whenever I hear that question I immediately start looking for exit signs and escape routes. It's amazing that the utterance of a mere four words can cause such a blind panic.
It's a relief to report that I've gotten to the age where most casual phrases don't produce such cataclysmic responses. I've safely navigated through the heavy-drama phases of life--the stalker twenties, the serial killer thirties, the murder/suicide forties. This may seem like a dubious achievement for most, but to a disaffiliated, transient loner it represents a laudable degree of discipline.
There is only one four-word phrase that I currently dread, and it's become so ubiquitous that I'm certain you've heard it a dozen times this week. I'm also betting that you've dropped the same offending phrase yourself, maybe a couple of times already today, probably on somebody you like. To my mind it's just about the least considerate thing imaginable, and yet no one ever gets called on the carpet for it.
The phrase presents itself like this — you're meeting an old friend for drinks or coffee, and suddenly something beeps in their hand. A brief glance down, a sheepish look and then the four words: "I gotta take this." And out the door, as your friend begins speaking to someone implicitly more important than you.
The next time somebody tries this on you, it's your moral obligation to look them in the eye and say, No, you don't. Don't take the call. And if they persist in answering the phone, pointedly ask them, Are you a surgeon? A drug dealer? The President? No? Then shut the f-----g phone off and pay attention.
There are few tasks more quixotic than calling jerks out for bad cell phone etiquette, but frankly I've had too long a history of pointless battles to consider backing down now. I've become a militant a-hole when it comes to egregious cell phone use, and I have no qualms about alienating friends who surreptitiously text someone while I'm talking. If it happens, I'll immediately call for the check and leave, and if that makes me rude, well, tough. My actions merely make me the second biggest prick at the table.
I used to think I was all wrong about this — it is a modern world, after all, and there's nothing sadder than a hopeless Luddite shaking his cane at the onrushing tide of progress. But I've since recognized that there's a big difference between technology that increases the quality of your life and technology that increases the depth of your compulsions. The cell phone has unhappily evolved into an object of fetishistic adoration, and I can't stand the impact — go to any bar, any restaurant and watch a table full of acquaintances: odds are, half have decided that social interaction is less important that updating their Facebook status or checking the internet to see which celebrity has just died. Why go out at all? I want to scream at them. And it's pathetic when the only thing they have to offer is a description of some stupid new phone application. Who gives a damn?
It's the tyranny of connectivity — the subtle social pressure that mandates a splintering of attention and a slavish devotion to all forms of cyber minutiae. Staring slack-jawed at a screen is no longer limited to the home computer; it's gone mobile now, on the streets and into bars. Whenever I hear about someone getting run over by a bus while texting, I always think: Chalk one up for the good guys.
I'll concede to the necessity of a computer in the modern world, and I'll grudgingly admit that cell phones are good for getting directions on the road. Outside of that, though. . . Look, I may not be the most tech-savvy person in the world, but I do know something about addictions, and nothing is more destructive that thoughtless, compulsive activity. I can't believe people really enjoy being connected twenty-four hours a day, that they really like being one-sided voyeurs who've abandoned all the pleasures of civility and human interaction.
To make matters worse, Amazon.com announced in July that sales of Kindle e-books have surpassed sales of hardcovers for the first time, and that within nine months, paperbacks, too, will be outsold by the rival Kindle products. This shouldn't be distressing news to a reader like me--books are books, after all--yet I can't help feeling a deep sadness about this new trend. Anything that lures people into staring at another screen cannot be a good thing.