Alone Together

Eating dinner at a bar the other night, I sat next to a sales rep for a company that produces portable home dialysis units. He was drinking pretty hard, celebrating a deal that he'd just closed and telling me how soaring diabetes rates were going to create ever greater demand for his revolutionary product. I thought he was going to propose a toast to kidney failure.

But what bothered me most about our conversation was the streamlined plastic phone device implanted in his right ear and connected via Bluetooth to the Palm Treo lying on the bar in front of him. Every minute or two the earjack would light up, suddenly pulsing white and blue, and I'd forget whatever I was saying to him or whatever he was saying to me. Finally, I asked him what the light was. "That just means the thing's turned on," he said. As he said this, he was looking at his Treo screen, which he did about every thirty or forty seconds. His face changed -- had some important message arrived? Still speaking to me, but without much focus now, he tapped out a line or two of text with his amazingly prehensile thumbs. He'd left the scene, I sensed; he was somewhere else. At headquarters, perhaps. And I'd been placed on hold.

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I didn't like it. I never like it. And it happens constantly. I'll be in the middle of what I take to be a sincere human interaction with somebody and they'll start cutting in and out -- checking the Blackberry, texting on the cell phone, stylus-ing the electronic calendar. No apologies, either. No 'excuse mes.' As though a mixture of physical proximity and electronic separation is the accepted new mode of social togetherness. I swear I've seen couples out on dates who speak to each other only when the menu comes, to negotiate their appetizers, and then drift off into conversations with others until the check arrives.

And yet they call it "communications technology."

When the dialysis salesman returned to earth, I committed a faux pas by asking him what he'd just been writing about. I thought I was entitled to ask this question because he'd been conducting his business in front of me. I found out otherwise. He glared at me. What kind of spying busybody was I? The warmth between us never returned and we ate our salads in different universes, staring at the TV behind the bar. The light in his earjack pulsed. I paid my tab. When I left, I mumbled a goodbye, but the salesman didn't acknowledge it. He was tapping on his keys.