Crimes and Misdemeanors: the case of the smart phone

Don’t get me wrong! Mine is a knight in shining armor when I need GPS in a strange part of town. And it’s also useful as a phone directory and instrument of communication which, I suppose trends toward utility. Some people think maximizing utility has to do with morality.  So what’s my gripe?

This morning on my walk by the Bay I angled up toward the playground. There were two little kids on the swings, and their dad was watching over them. Sort of. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. But he was neglecting his kids.

He was in that familiar pose, head cocked toward the screen. You know the look. But every second he disappeared into his smart phone was a minute he might have been smiling at his kids. Instead he telegraphed quite another, and hurtful message. The screen – someone else, something else – was more important than they were.

Sometimes smart phones block aesthetic reality. At the start of a concert we’re warned to turn them off so they don’t interrupt the music. But before the lights dim and the music begins there can be a magical ambiance I wouldn’t miss for anything: the shuffle towards the few remaining balcony seats; the air rife with anticipation; the stage being given its last set-up adjustments.

If it’s an orchestra, I watch the players strolling to their places and warming up. I wonder mischievously who will have to double-time to get the single remaining chair among the second-violins.  Are the kettle drums tuned? To me these moments are sweet, intimate, and not-to-be-missed. If I peer over the balcony and catch a flicker of screens, that’s not immoral (unless it bothers your neighbors trying to soak in the musical scene). But it surely disrupts the subtle aesthetic ambiance.

Sometimes it’s immoral, indecent, to disrupt aesthetic ambiance. Loud music after midnight from across the street is indecent exposure, a flagrant disregard of peace, tranquility, and the softness of dark.  Smart phones can’t be censured for loud noise — except for lecture or concert hall beeps.

The more flagrant crimes and misdemeanors occur when I’ve barely been introduced to a stranger in a restaurant line when he cuts me off to answer his phone, with no apology, or when a driver just ahead jambs on his brakes because his phone was distracting his attention.

Surely it’s a double misdemeanor for that pair of girls in their teens just ahead on the sidewalk to be lost in their phones rather than in tune with each other. For girlfriends to walk home from school side by side, without a giggle or gossip, is for each to tell the other that there are so many OTHERS so much MORE important than the would-be pal at their elbow.

Then there’s that restaurant couple across the room in their 60s. To be so unhappily locked out of conversation or eye-contact, in mutual disattention, is surely more than a misdemeanor. They disturb the peace and assault each other with their screams that yes, their marriage is nothing but boredom, on the rocks, despite the fine wine close at hand.

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