Your Grandchildren Might Hate Facebook and Twitter

Imagine if the next generation of kids prefer playing outside to fiddling with a smart phone.

Last week, I took my closest friend Amy out to dinner for her birthday. As we settled into a table at a lovely Italian restaurant, she reached into her bag and placed her Blackberry to her right on the table, as if it were part of the silverware.

I looked at her. “You need to put that back in your bag,” I said.

“I need to have it out in case Brian calls,” she replied. Brian is her formidable 10-year-old, who was at that moment with his dad.

“Either you put the phone away,” I said, “or I’m leaving.”

In the end we compromised. She agreed to mute the phone and not look at it (not entirely successfully), but couldn’t quite bring herself to actually placing it in her bag. On principle I wanted to leave, but felt given it was her birthday dinner it would have been churlish to do so. But I shook my head, as I so often do anymore, as the eternal question wrought by all of the technology that now attacks us from every flank once again raised itself: When did we all become so important?

I was raised by parents whose idea of entertaining me was to say, “Go outside and play until dinner.” Yes, yes, it was a different, more innocent world then, but it wasn’t that different or that innocent. But we have invented all sorts of bogeymen in order to protect our right for public rudeness, to justify why our kids should be allowed to keep their cell phones on in a classroom or we should be able to litter a restaurant dinner table with ours. Amy and I have been also butting heads lately because when we are on the phone having a conversation, I will periodically hear this annoying noise, like someone crumpling a piece of paper, when I am in the middle of a sentence. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was the sound of the Blackberry wheel whirring in my ear, because she had gotten a text message and could not possibly wait until the end of our phone call to read it.

There is a larger issue to all of this. It’s a loss so staggering that it boggles the mind that so few people are concerned about it or even aware of it. As a society, we have lost the ability to simply be quiet. To be unstimulated and unconnected, to not constantly be talking or texting or surfing or playing Angry Birds. In restaurants and on buses, walking down the street or sitting at our desks, we are trapped in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole, checking the PDA, then back to the desktop computer screen, then over to the laptop, then on the phone, and then back and back and back again. It reminds me of that scene in My Fair Lady where Higgins dashes around his study turning on every sound appliance he owns, the room filling with a blitzkrieg of chattering and chirping, as poor Colonel Pickering sits in his armchair, hands over his ears, begging for it all to stop.

There is simply no place where one can go to be quiet or contemplative anymore, to lounge in the luxury of silence. Step onto a “quiet car” on a SEPTA or Amtrak train and you’ll hear … talking. Places once renowned for their hushed quiet—churches, libraries, museums, secluded beaches—are now as noisy as the upper decks at Citizens Bank Park. There was a time when stepping into an elevator in the morning was an opportunity for reflection, a head-clearing trip for preparation for a busy day ahead. Now it’s nothing but surround sound, of cell-phone blather and inane chit-chat recapping last night’s episode of The Bachelor.

When did we lose our ability to just … shut up? And in a world where the only place one can now go to be meditative is the shower, what does it mean for our future?

Nothing good, I can tell you that. But there are people who are starting to sound (ha!) suitable alarm bells. Earlier this month the blogger David Bollier penned a terrific post about the “rebellion against the too-muchness of daily life,” lamenting that “we live in a world overrun with email, Twitter and Facebook messages, always-on smart phones, pagers, text-messaging, and countless other media inputs. Silence and contemplation have disappeared amidst an overwhelming barrage of electronic inputs, both voluntary and force-fed.” A few weeks earlier, author Pico Iyer wrote an op-ed in the New York Times plowing this same field, pointing out that “the children of tomorrow … will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once.” In other words, it’s time to tell our kids, “Go out and play until dinner.”

“Wear headphones,” my friends, weary of my teeth-gnashing about the rising level of noise all around me, advise. But headphones exist to provide noise, not filter it out. And walking through life with earplugs is not only dicey for the obvious reasons (such as not hearing the car horn telling you you’re about to get mowed down), but because it robs you of the kind of noise that actually feeds contemplation: the crash of waves, the chirping of birds, even the gentle rumble of faraway traffic. It would just be nice—and restorative to the soul—if we were able to go someplace, anyplace, truly, truly quiet anymore. The ability to say or hear nothing—and, by effect, sit with one’s own thoughts, ruminate and contemplate and fantasize and hope and worry and really just figure stuff out—has become a vanished art. What happens in a world where everyone talks and no one listens?

Last summer I had a friend down with me at the Shore, and as we were getting our belongings together to head to the beach, she looked at me quizzically as I held my beach chair, a towel and nothing else. “Is that all you’re bringing?” she asked. Yes, I replied. I told her that while I sometimes tote along an iPod or a book, other times I just like to go down and look at the ocean, or stand by the water, take in a deep breath of salt air, and have a good think.

She looked at me like I was nuts, and then said, without irony, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Sadly, anymore neither do I.