Me and you and a screen of blue

Russell Wangersky
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Prevailing winds

People don’t look up. (Well, a lot of people don’t look at all, but that’s a different column.)

But people don’t look up. Stare down from the second floor of a house at the street below, and chances are, only a fraction of the people who pass by on the street will even notice you.

And that number gets smaller every day, as we get drawn into a new, Pavlovianly attractive world of buzzes and chimes, the always critical lure of the cellphone.

Tuesday, the very second that the Canada Day fireworks ended, cars started streaming out of the area around Quidi Vidi Lake, a sign that many couldn’t even be bothered to walk to the lakeside, but simply pulled up to the curb and rolled the windows down to watch.

They head out in all directions, carloads of kids and teenagers and even parents, and if people don’t look up when they’re walking, they look up even less from car windows.

On one road leading downtown, I could look out and watch the cars heading by in the failing light, and it was quite something to see the number of them — virtually all of them — that were lit up inside with the particular halo of electronic devices.

Were they sending out photos of the fireworks, the “wish you were here” kind of one-upmanship that is sometimes disguised as fondness? Perhaps. More likely, they were answering texts and all-important messages. There were kids in car seats with iPads, cars with four people and four lit phones. Smartphones, accompanied by dumb silence.

Ubiquitous isn’t even the right word. Heck, it has too many characters to be really useful in a tweet or instant message.

I’m not saying I’m not guilty of it: when my phone buzzes, I jump. It doesn’t have a ringtone — I can’t bring myself to impose that kind of extra noise on the world for something that’s likely to be a personal message. But I jump, and in my mind’s eye, I picture myself drooling for good news before opening whatever message it is and being dragged back to Earth.

It makes me wonder what the new reality, the new etiquette, will be for cellphone use. Because eventually, we’ll either have to have smartphone etiquette or mutual agreement that etiquette is dead.

Meet with as few as eight people, and at some point during the meeting at least two will be scrolling through something that’s no doubt critically important on their phones — the latest elevator row between Hollywood stars or the ever-changing, heartbreaking seven-day forecast.

Who hasn’t been in the middle of a conversation — not a critical one, perhaps, but the back-and-forth, give-and-take where one listens and the other speaks — and had one half of the conversation disengage and focus instead on their latest electronic missive?

Who hasn’t been at a restaurant and seen a couple, out together, both completely taken with their phones instead of with each other?

I know what it’s like to want to answer that trembling message — I try hard to imagine what it feels like when you’re the one who is being dropped like a hot potato, no longer worthy of simple attention.

And here’s the message I think it sends: anything is more important than you. A message as anonymous as spam has more value than talking to you.

So, what do you do to try and ameliorate the damage? Do you treat it like any other interruption, apologize, and step away from a conversation, coming back to the same place as quickly as you can? Do you just let it — gulp — ring?

Or do we find a way to say there’s a time when instant messages are important, and there’s a time when it’s just as important that we don’t get any, or at least, don’t acknowledge them?

I would like a phone with a “not now” button, a “I’ll be taking calls between 10 and 11” or “between three and four o’clock.”

We owe each other our undivided attention — and I know that’s hard in a world that now tries to divide attention at every corner. I understand that.

But is it better to wear an electronic leash all the time, or to take that collar off your neck for a day, an hour, a year?

And the cars stream by, lit up inside with their instantly identifiable pools of electronic blue.

A virtual river of company, with so much of it electronically alone.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be contacted by email at

Geographic location: Quidi Vidi Lake, Hollywood

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