I told myself that it would never happen to me, but it did. I was sitting with my wife and daughter at an Indian restaurant on the East Side of Providence. In the midst of a family discussion I felt a familiar buzz of my Blackberry at my hip, and noticed I had a new email. No harm in checking I reasoned. As my wife and daughter continued to chat, I saw that the email had come from an editor who had interviewed me for an upcoming article in Woman’s Health. “One quick question,” she wrote. Recognizing the journalist’s looming deadline, my thumbs moved over the tiny keyboard as I typed in a two-sentence response to her question. As I prepared to push “Send” I looked up and saw my wife and daughter staring at me. “What?” I snapped back defensively, “This is important!” I sent off my message, and, as I slid my device back into my holster, I attempted to explain further; but, really, there was nothing more I could say.
As my voice trailed off, my family simply shook their heads in disbelief. I can’t recall the exact words my wife responded with, but it was along the lines of: “After that stunt, your existence on this planet cannot be justified.” I allowed my mobile phone to intrude into a very special time with my daughter and wife, and I was caught BlackBerry-handed. I know from my work as a researcher and psychiatrist that I’m not the first person this has ever happened to. Cell phones have changed the way we relate to each other. I still recall the first time I saw somebody answering a cell phone at a restaurant. My wife and I both agreed that such behavior was inappropriate and inexcusable. Yet now, whether you're waiting in a doctor's office, walking in a train station, or sitting at a restaurant, scenes of people talking on their phones are commonplace. Almost nobody notices anymore.
I'll admit, after our first experience of shock and indignation, both my wife and I have been known to engage in brief cell phone conversations while awaiting appetizers from T.G.I. Friday’s. But cellular devices are no longer just a place to carry on a conversation, a sort of phone booth that you can carry by your side. Smart phones have opened up world far beyond Ma Bell’s vision of "reach out and touch someone." They have permitted regular and immediate access to e-mails, text messages, and the entire world wide web, all within easy reach of your fingertips. This can be helpful, to be sure, when you want to see if the weather this weekend will spoil your family plans for a picnic, or to find out the time of the next showing of "Toy Story 3". But too often having access to an entire digital community does not foster closer family ties. As my experience at the Indian restaurant shows, sometimes people can do some pretty dumb things when they have a smart phone.