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Mobility Impaired

An Intervention for Smartphone Abusers

A hand holding to the camera a smartphone with a stop sign on the screen--looks graphic cartoon likeFact: Guys cannot text and urinate at the same time. A single nerve controls both brains, so trying to multitask at the urinal is a non-starter—literally. What guys do at the urinal normally is none of my business unless I'm standing in a line that has stalled because a user is fiddling with the object in his other hand. My wife says she has encountered a similar obstacle to relief in the rest rooms of her gender: women who think the stall is a phone booth. And if these are theater rest rooms, then we're talking only two or three urinals or stalls and a fast-approaching curtain time.

This tirade is about mobile devices, those things that ring when Al Pacino is about to cut the pound of flesh out of Antonio's breast; that blind you emanating from the lap of the woman two seats over as John Lithgow is mourning over Cordelia's body; that block our view of Elton John performing for the duration of the smartphone's memory. Actually, this tirade is aimed at the people attached to those mobile devices: the people who answer them, even to say, loudly, that they can't talk because they are at a play (and then talk anyway); the people who take selfies and block our view of Anthony Rendon making his Major League debut at the plate; the people at intersections who take too long to notice when the green arrow lights up and then make a super slo-mo left turn because they only have one hand available for steering, leaving a line of cars to wait another three minutes for the next green arrow; the people in traffic jams who still sit there as cars in front of them advance a quarter mile; the people who create second- and third-effects traffic jams when, answering a text about being caught in traffic, ram into the back of a car that had been stopped for five seconds; the people playing solitaire during a symphony concert, and, come on! why are you paying the price of admission to play a game in a room filled with hundreds of living people when you can play it for free and in the solitary space of your living room? If you want to play solitair, BE SOLITAIRE!

All the above I've personally witnessed, including just last night during King Lear in Central Park. The woman two seats over took pictures of the performance with her smartphone next to the ears of the people in front of her. She did this so as not to look conspicuous (having been told countless times, "No photography, please"). Never mind that she distracted the people in front of her with the picture shooting, and then distracting us with the blinding-by-the-light picture viewing. I can see her showing the pictures and telling friends how great Lithgow was: how the hell would she know?

Here comes the eye-rolling "what-ev-er" reaction, the "you're just some cranky old guy who can't adapt to modern technology" argument. I'll address both ends of that accusation singly, first the back end. Yes, I am old enough to have started my journalism career on a typewriter in the days of lead linotype printing. Our college student newspaper was one of the first to get computerized typesetting. The first three newspapers I worked for had three different computerized copy-flow systems, meaning I had to learn new coding and processes with each new job (this was pre-Apple and Microsoft). I saw the era of computerized pagination dawn—no more strips of type, hot wax, and blue pencils. I fumbled into the Internet age before AOL was created, and started my business-to-business online newsletter before the concept was commercially viable. In other words, I have been adapting to new technology my whole life, including using mobile phones and tablets at their inception. Adapting is not my problem.

Now to address the front end of that accusation, that I'm just some cranky old guy—yep. I am cranky, but it's not due to evolving technology. It's due to the backside behavior of those using it in ways that infringe on my pursuit of happiness. Ah, you ask, what about your right to take pictures and video with your cell phone, sharing your joy by texting friends and tweeting in real time, capturing your joy with a selfie, and checking on your kids with a quick phone call? I'm glad you asked, because that question goes right to the gist of this commentary. Consider this an intervention into your addictive behavior of which you are unaware.

Like people getting inebriated, people focusing on their mobile devices do not realize how much their behavior deteriorates with increasing use; they don't realize how mobility impaired they've become. The parallel is most apt on the road. We've seen drivers weaving, braking inexplicably, speeding up and slowing down without reason, and changing lanes into oncoming traffic. Of course, we want to get ahead of these seemingly drunk drivers, so first chance we get we speed past and discover not a can or bottle in their hand but a phone in one hand they'r stabbing at with the fingers in their other hand. Do the math: which hand is steering? Which eyes are watching the road? It used to be that when we'd get behind such driving we'd automatically say, "they're drunk." Now our default comment is, "they're texting."

Another parallel between alcohol abusers and cell phone users is vocal volume. The amount of alcohol intake has a direct correlation with decibel levels—over the course of a baseball game and four beers apiece, the guys sitting in the stands behind us could drown out Pavarotti at the Met with their conversation. Why a mobile phone induces people to speak louder, too, I can't fathom, or does this only happen in cinemas, concert halls, and other public events? We attended the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction last weekend, and during a roundtable session with the inductees, a man in the audience was talking on his phone, going to great lengths (as in length of time) to say why he couldn't talk now. He drowned out the inductees—and they were using microphones (I thought Tony La Russa gave that look only to bad umpiring). Men and women projecting into their phones as if they were on the Harman Hall stage rather than sitting in row F are oblivious to how loud they are, even as people turn around and shoot La Russa eye darts at them. "Bye" is not a long word.

Inebriation makes people do stupid things; so do mobile devices. At D.C.'s Reagan National Airport, I saw a man walking down the corridor slam forehead-first into one end of a giant airport diagram sign. He was focused on his phone, not giant, immovable (or even movable) objects that he was fast approaching. He hit the metal support pole so hard his glasses flew off and blood began trickling from his brow. Of course, he behaved like a cat hitting a glass door, shifting blame onto the sign for suddenly occupying that space. Another time I was in an elevator when the door opened to reveal a woman waiting to board, nose down at her smartphone. Then, as the door was closing, she suddenly looked up and said, "Hey!" the voice and vision cut off as the door shut and the elevator continued its downward journey without her. It's notable that not a single one of the five strangers on that elevator attempted to stop the door closing; but all of us chuckled after it did.

I have been in crowded arena and theater corridors and on busy sidewalks when I see a woman walking my way with all of her attention on her screen. Nowhere to go, I realize I can't put my hands up to cushion the blow—that could get me arrested—so I just stop and, arms at my side, brace myself for impact like a basketball player setting a pick. Recently, Sarah and I were at a restaurant where near us sat a young woman who, incredibly, was more attractive than my wife. That so rarely happens, I couldn't help myself: I looked at her as often as I looked at Sarah. The woman's equally attractive companion, however, never lifted his eyes from his mobile phone—even while he was eating. Not that she noticed: she didn't take her eyes off her laptop, either—which is why I was able to stare at her with impunity (Sarah puts up with so much, I know). It is wiser to be more aware of your immediate surroundings than your virtual existence in a distant place.

That wisdom also applies to experiencing the moment. Some people smoke a joint when The Who breaks into "Pinball Wizard" or drop acid before seeing Pink Floyd, and beer and baseball are joined at the hip; I've never done drugs and I don't drink beer, so I can neither endorse these notions nor adequately contest them (I do know that wine makes meals better, but that's the extend of my using mind-altering substances in the role of experience enhancing). I do, however, have professional, firsthand experience in recording concerts and plays visually (taking photographs) and lexically (taking notes), and I can attest to the greater satisfaction that comes with being wholly in the moment than recording it for later appreciation. Even over time, the shaky pixelated image is never as memorable as soaking in the live experience as it's happening. Tweets and texts don't compare to smiling with your companions or grabbing a hand as the soul stirs. You can capture an image or emotocon on a cell phone, but only when you open your whole self to Elton John up there at the piano singing the chorus of "Tiny Dancer," only when you see the whole-stadium-perspective of Rick Ankiel firing a chest-high strike across the middle of home plate from centerfield to keep the opposing runner from tagging up at third base, only when you feel everybody's eyes and hearts focused only on Benjamin Curns speaking Richard III's last soliloquy to a hushed room, only in those moments do you capture lightning in the bottle that is your cerebral vortex.

Having said all this, I am not advocating outlawing mobile devices (I'm not that cranky—yet). However, as with alcohol, I am in favor of outlawing their use while driving, and I would endorse a theater or concert venue's decision to establish cell phone check rooms and use metal detectors to ensure no mobile device enters the theater—that's how annoyed I get when phones beep, buzz, and do the Macarena in a theater, when their screens blind us more than the strobes Heart uses during "Crazy on You," and when people use 53 words to say "bye" with megaphone intensity.

We'll never achieve such mobile device control, so I will turn the onus around and say to all you users, mobile device responsibly. Be responsible when driving, and be responsible for the safety and comfort of those around you in venues of entertainment. I, myself, fully appreciate the convenience of mobile devices as much as I appreciate great wine—well, not that much, but I'm empathizing with those of you who are into Words With Friends. I like Tweeting to my Shakespeareances followers—but I wait until after the play or at least intermission (and make sure the phone is on silent and turned totally off before the next act starts). I like being able to text my son our respective whereabouts when we're meeting up somewhere in New York City, but I don't text while walking down the city's sidewalks. I like the security of having a smartphone available when I'm on the road. But, I have a rule: I neither make calls nor answer them when I'm driving. To make calls, I'll pull off into a parking lot, and the only calls I answer are when Sarah calls and she knows I'm driving (calls that last no more than 15 seconds) and any 704 area code (where my dad lives and I'm atop the emergency contact list). All other calls can go to voice mail, even the important ones: and during plays, yes, dad's emergency waits until intermission—if that seems inhuman, don't go to any play I'm attending.

Frankly, nobody can convince me that a text is any more important now than 90 minutes from now, and nobody can convince me that any call is worth holding a phone up to your ear more than 30 seconds while driving (and even that's stretching it). You can't convince me because, just 25 years ago, we didn't have the technology, and we got along just fine—and I was a parent then, too. Besides, you don't want Pacino's Shylock, knife in hand, to forget Antonio and seek a pound of your flesh (how much does a hand weigh?) when your phone rings. Pacino, however, didn't stay in character when that phone ring; he went all Scarface.

So, for your sake and ours: mobile device responsibly.

Eric Minton
August 2, 2014


Hi, Eric—
Thank you for the rant about the self-centered oafs who refuse to turn off, mute, or at least set-on-vibrate their handheld devices in crowded public places. These people are philistines of the first order. I respectfully disagree with you about talking on a phone while driving, however. Our Lexus ES-350 has bluetooth built-in to it. My Samsung Note II accepts voice commands. So I can tell it to "call Eric Minton cell" and it will do so. There is a button on the steering wheel that I push to end the conversation. For the life of me, I don't see how this differs from having a conversation with my wife. I do advocate that those who e-mail, text, manually dial, and/or hold the phone to their ear while driving should be locked up. On a lighter note, let's remember what IT and cell companies call their customers: users. Think of the other industry that calls its customers "users"—that would be the street drug industry. In that light, the crazy behaviors start to make some sense, no matter how otherwise unacceptable they are.

Warren D. Miller
August 3, 2014

I'm with you, Eric, but I'm afraid you went too easy on the electronic device malefactors. I read that a critic in New York took a repeat offender's phone and threw it across the theatre (for article, click here). My daughter recently returned from a trip to London, where she attended a performance of The Woman In Black. During the performance, some monkey lit up their cellphone. One of the two actors happened to be facing towards the audience as this happened, and he simply stopped and addressed the monkey, saying that he was not going to say another word, and the play would not continue, until the cell phone was turned off. Personally, I would have demanded that the monkey leave the theater before continuing the performance. I don't attend live theater much anymore, for the simple reason that there are far too many monkeys in the audience with me, and I'm seriously concerned about what I might do if I encounter one more monkey…

David Alberts
August 4, 2014

Thanks for your editorial; I am in total agreement with you. I usher frequently at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse, and the biggest frustration for ushers is people who think "no photos" does not, for some reason, apply to them. The latest excuse was "My mom (sitting next to her), said it was OK," despite having heard the announcement in the lobby, being told by the "will call" person, and also by an usher, that photos are not allowed. It's also frustrating to see people focussed on a tiny electronic screen, while life, in the form of other people, live music, and a beautiful place, are ignored. If only there were some device that could be employed at theaters to shut down all internet/phone communication inside the seating area! Let anyone who must communicate go out to the lobby to do so—better yet, outside.

Jean Quinlan
August 4, 2014

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