I have a very scratchy pet peeve. Unfortunately, being powerless to make it go away brings neither resignation nor consolation. Fact of life in the present digital age, this gripe of mine isn’t going to go away. Like it or lump it, as the old adage goes.
Cell phones today are as common as traffic jams, and to my way of thinking just as likely to annoy. Everyone everywhere has a cell phone, and my guess is, half of those phones are in use for several hours of every day. The impression is that most people here in Japan spend much more time texting, or browsing websites than they do talking on their phones. Well then, is that so annoying? Let me paint a picture…
You’re walking on a sidewalk in a busy part of town at a time when crowds are likely to be the norm. Not much room between you and others in the flow of people on all sides. It’s pretty much a stop-start-sidestep-backstep bump and halt kind of progress while you do your best not to bang into or step on the person in front of you. But hey, that’s okay—it’s a part of life in the big city.
Enter the cell phone. Suddenly you have every other pair of eyes on the sidewalk glued to the screen of a cell phone six inches from the nose and no one is watching where they’re walking, no one is aware of life beyond the small virtual world before their locked down eyes, no one hears, acknowledges or reacts to anything, but moves in a zombie pace through the crowd, oblivious to the reality around them. A person could drop dead at their feet and the phone-zombie would pass on totally unaware. And don’t look for an apology when someone walks straight into you. You are invisible.
Drives me bananas, but like I say, it isn't going to go away anytime soon. Cell phones are the very infrastructure of life in Japan and it’s hard to imagine how people could maintain their social existence and identity without them.
Public space has become a place where physically present individuals interact with other individuals in remote places. On several occasions I’ve sat in restaurants near couples at another table who passed the time texting and talking on cell phones, as if unaware they had come with the person opposite. Why bother to meet? My guess is, instead of meeting face to face, they might be more comfortable talking to, or texting each other on the phone.
People are fast losing the skills of face to face communication, not only with the people around them, but equally with the physical environment they are passing through. It’s no longer unusual to see people in museums, galleries, movies and parks busy with the buttons on a cell phone, completely unseeing of anything connected to their real and present environment.
But let me end this rant with my favorite cell phone story. Not too long ago while walking down the street, I happened to look up and notice a woman passing on her bicycle, a little girl of about three in the baby seat behind her. Since it is a daily sight here, I thought little of the fact that the woman was steering with one hand and working her cell phone with the other—eyes down, of course. But just at that moment she drove her bicycle head on into a utility pole at the side of the street. Everything went flying! Mother to one side, child to the other and bicycle upended, all in a heap at the foot of the pole. Before anyone could come to their aid, the woman was up, dusting off the wailing child, righting her slightly bent bicycle and pedaling off with the crying baby reseated and the cell phone once more active in her right hand, headed I guess for the next light pole up the street.
Photo credit: Taken from the cover of the 1995 Simon & Schuster book Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle