Will the Virtual World Destroy Our Real One?

7 years ago

One night not that long ago, I left the husband and kids behind for a rare girls' night out at a fancy restaurant. Over glasses of wine, we gossiped and laughed and confided salacious secrets to one other about our husbands and mothers-in-law. But at some point after the salads were served and before our empty plates were spirited away by a waiter, there was an inevitable lull in the conversation. And that's when it happened.

Man wearing futuristic device touching finger of woman

Across from me, a woman looked down in her lap and her face began to glow an eerie blue. Noticing this, the woman beside her quickly reached into her handbag and soon, she too was completely absorbed by something just below the surface of the table. As I watched in growing consternation, every single woman at the table followed suit, each one gazing as if hypnotized into the glowing screen of her iPhone.

Since I was sitting among friends, I resisted the urge to pout. Five minutes later, though, the virtual conversations were still going strong, my wineglass was empty, and I was getting bored. Resolutely, I pulled out my Internet-free, Bluetoothless phone and, after a few moments, found Send Message in the menu.

I'm eating beets, I laboriously typed in a text to my husband. U?

He didn't respond.

"It was so rude," I told him later that night when we were face to face. (His own cell phone, he claimed, had been left in the car.) "So. Rude. But these are the same women who always RSVP to things, the same women who would die before forgetting to send a thank you note. So now I'm just wondering when it became socially acceptable to check out of a real-life conversation in favor of having one on your iPhone."

Because it has, you know. I can't count the number of times I've been chatting with someone, only to watch her expression go blank as she mindlessly searched for a buzzing BlackBerry and began reading her latest text message. And I know I'm not the only one who's passed a car going 50 mph on the interstate because the driver is totally absorbed in tapping out something on the Droid he's propped up against his steering wheel. We are, as a society, constantly leaving the real world in favor of the virtual one — and why not, when our inboxes, music, movies, books, games and bookmarked websites all are available to us whenever and wherever we want? How can a flesh and blood co-worker compete with that? Or a best friend? Or a spouse?

Or our kids?

"I can't believe you haven't gotten an iPhone," a friend murmured to me a couple of weeks ago at a get-together, where a group of moms was oohing and ahhing over each others' iPhone apps like they were gazing at a new baby. "They're so awesome."

"I know," I said wistfully. "That's what I'm afraid of."

The truth is, I went back and forth on getting an iPhone for months. After all, I do almost all of my work on the Internet. Imagine how much more I'd get done if I could answer emails in the car-rider pickup line! Or edit columns while sitting at a soccer game! Or research stories at the playground!

But then I thought about how much my life changed after I got a laptop. Initially, it seemed revolutionary, because I could work in any room in the house. With two small children underfoot, my newfound mobility had a tremendous impact on my output. But over the years, I've begun to feel like a slave to the thing. If I'm sitting outside, idly watching the kids play in the backyard, shouldn't I be working? If my son falls asleep and I have 30 minutes to myself, shouldn't I be working? If we're watching a family movie that isn't very good, shouldn't I be working?

Certainly I'm more productive now that I have a MacBook. But am I happier?

The truth is, I don't really feel free now unless I leave the house. Armed only with a cell phone that I rarely use, I can read a book without feeling guilty. Or play with my kids without worrying about unanswered e-mails. Or simply sit and enjoy the day. And ultimately, there's no way that any app can compare with that.

Until recently, my husband agreed with me. Then his boss had to go and give him a BlackBerry. Now that he has 24-7 email access, he's undoubtedly a better, more connected employee, but since he finds it difficult to ignore the seductive buzz that signals a new email or text, I've found myself fantasizing about his CrackBerry "accidentally" falling in the toilet or getting run over by the car. I worry we'll end up becoming one of those couples tweeting each other while sitting side by side in bed, in some kind of BlackBerry vs. MacBook showdown.

For that matter, I worry about all of us. At what point are we going to look up from our mobile Internet devices and realize that our friends have gone, our kids have grown up, and life — real life — has passed us by?

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