Among the strollers on the streets of downtown Toronto, my hometown, you will spot many self-talkers. These people live in their own worlds, speaking and sometimes screaming incessantly to unseen friends and demons. No doubt, you've seen them in your town too. Clearly, our mental health systems have missed or failed these people. I don't want to make light of their plight--for the serious cases, their affliction is a great tragedy--but I have realized of late that the problem is not as pervasive as I originally thought.
On closer examination, I've noticed that some of these people sport earpieces. A small microphone bud hangs down from the earpiece, attached by a slender cord. As my eyes follow the cord down, I see that it is attached to one of the now ubiquitous cell phones. It seems that some of the people who I thought were severe schizophrenics are merely addicted to their communication devices.
This is often not their only addiction. For some of them, a cell phone only temporarily displaces the otherwise permanently affixed MP3 player headphones. Many of these people spend their days engulfed in electronic bubbles that shut out the rest of the world.
One of the problems that I have with this is that there are some sounds that you do not want to block out. For example, I want to hear a honking horn when I absentmindedly step into the path of an oncoming car. And if a gorgeous woman points to me and says, "You're a hunk! I want to bear your child," I want to hear that too. I've waited futilely my whole life to hear that. It's not likely to happen to someone who, like me, never really lost his baby fat or achieved full adult height, and especially unlikely now that I am almost certainly past the midpoint of my life, but, hey, you never know.
The protective electronic bubble is not just aural. What could be so important in anyone's life that I have to take considerable evasive actions in order to avoid being bumped into by someone walking on the sidewalk, oblivious to all around him, while he checks and sends messages on his BlackBerry?
Text messaging, instant messaging, email, voice mail, and even the plain old telephone increasingly substitute for face-to-face encounters. I contend that these are, at best, exceptionally weak substitutes. None of them--least of all text messaging, instant messaging, and email--come close to the communication and interpersonal richness of looking directly into someone's eyes as you talk to them. There are picture phones and video conferencing, but a picture with a field of vision of someone else's choosing, whether that picture is full motion or still and regardless of how many pixels of resolution it may have, just isn't the same. What's more, a firm handshake or, when politically correct and socially acceptable, a platonic hug between consenting adults can dramatically enhance the experience. (Author's note: While I don't have the slightest moral or social qualms about it, I've never been comfortable with the male-to-male hugging thing. It's just one of my many neuroses. If we do meet, please excuse me if I seem standoffish.)
It's not just our personal relationships. We shop online, ensuring that we will, heaven forbid, never actually have to talk to a shopkeeper. Store owners are largely to blame for this. When was the last time that you dealt with someone who deserved the title "shopkeeper," with all of its connotations of a person who truly cares about his or her shop and treats customers with respect and warmth? Today, the person who "helps" you in a store is probably a minimum wage worker who knows little about the store's stock, has only a passing interest in whether or not you shop there, and would much rather be somewhere else, anywhere else. Truth be told, I reluctantly have to admit that I welcome online shopping as a way of avoiding being greeted by a store greeter. You know that they aren't really there to welcome or help you. They're there because the store doesn't trust you in the least and wants a pair of eyes to discourage you from shoplifting.
Where will this electronic disconnect end? How about a universal communication device permanently implanted in our ears--both ears so that we can get stereo reception--and eye implants to flash pictures directly to the brain. The artificial eyes and ears would use Bluetooth or some other wireless option to connect to our phones, MP3 players, computers, televisions, and any other device that we may want to talk or listen to. That way, we could connect to anyone anywhere in the world without having to risk coming within a country mile of them or, perish the thought, come in physical contact with them.
Of course, once we get the implants, while we could connect electronically with anybody, there would be no escaping it. Ironically, our avoidance of proximity would make it more difficult, or certainly rude, to evade electronic contact. Another problem is that the electromagnetic waves from our eye and ear implants will probably totally fry our brains. I think that's a wee bit too steep a price to pay for progress. As many readers will no doubt attest, I can't afford to lose any of my brain cells.