Thursday, May 16, 2013

Self-Absorbed (Or General Dumbassery)?

This piece also appears on HuffPost Comedy

Are we all so self-absorbed -- our attention span like that of a toddler -- that we can't pay attention to the announcements continually repeating the same information? In an age where we can't seem to do anything without our smart phones how dumb have we all gotten?

I recently had to report for jury duty. There were wall signs all over the juror waiting room stating: No Cell Phone Use In This Room. We were verbally instructed that if we needed to use our phones we were to step out of the room to do so. We were instructed that we weren’t to tweet, play games, check our email, take pictures, or record video. We were instructed to turn them off, not just silence them. These verbal instructions were announced over the loud speaker. An excuse of not hearing didn’t apply.

I sat judgmentally (I know I know, judge not lest ye...yet there I was unable to follow that easy instruction) shaking my head at the number of people that had to be told repeatedly to turn off their cell phones. I’m guilty of being addicted to my twitter feed, checking my email, and playing too much Words With Friends, but I powered down when I was told to do so and settled in for the hours of waiting that were ahead of me. It was almost a relief of sorts to be unreachable. It’s kind of like when I’m at the gym. The phone is locked in my locker and I’m on my own time. With my phone powered down in the jury room, I was free to sit with my own thoughts; initially taking interest in the process happening around me then later, focusing on a magazine to relieve the boredom.

I watched in amazement as one of the perspective jurors in the jury room stood talking on her phone merely minutes after a security personnel team member made yet another announcement about NOT using cell phones in that room. When the security team member saw the woman, she asked, "Ma'am are you talking on your cell phone?" The question went unacknowledged. The woman on the phone gave no indication that she was the person being asked the question. As the security team member approached her she quickly ended her phone conversation and smiled at the woman. Her smile was one of those Oops-I-didn’t-think-No-Cell-Phones-applied-to-me-Sorry smiles. The security team member wasn’t amused. She had the patience of Job, but she didn’t care about anyone’s excuses and as nicely as possible I heard her tell people so. I loved her.

It is the smallest thing to turn off your phone (or to silence it if turning it off is too anxiety inducing for you). You don’t even have to remember it outright. When you go to the movies there’s a visual on the screen with an announcement. When you attend a live theatrical performance a bodiless voice fills the theatre instructing you to turn off your phone (and unwrap your candy). When you’re sitting in the court room before starting voir dire a person standing in front of you reminds you to turn off your phone. All you have to do is pull it out of your pocket or purse and turn it off (or at least silence it). That’s all. In that moment when cell phones are mentioned, you check yours and make sure it’s off or set to silent. But inevitably an obnoxious ringer rings or clangs or beeps or chirps. 

I was sitting in voir dire (the examination to ascertain a juror’s competence) when that inevitable happened -- the unique, muffled sound that has become so familiar when someone’s purse starts ringing. The judge’s instructions were interrupted. Concentration was broken. All eyes tracked toward the sound. Frustration was writ large on many faces. It’s understandable. We are connected to the world, but not to what’s happening in front of us. We don’t think those posted placards and announcements apply to us. 

Sitting on a jury panel, instructions are of the utmost importance. One has to pay attention, listen to the details. Can we pay attention enough when we’re dying to check Facebook for the latest cat video? Can we take the fate of someone else’s life into our hands when we’re so self-absorbed that we need to check-in via foursquare? I’m being dramatic, but I’m being dramatic to make a point. As a juror, we have to be able to discern between true and false. If we can’t be bothered to follow the simple request of turning off a phone, how can anyone expect us to follow all the information being given to us via testimony then use that information to render a decision of guilty or innocent.

We will walk down the sidewalk (or into the street) texting or reading on our phones expecting every one around us to move out of our way because we’re too busy in our own world to be bothered with our surroundings. During the opening monologue on the May 15, 2013, episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, even Jimmy Kimmel mentioned how texting-reading-emailing while walking is a normal action that takes place on the streets of New York City. His joke: he wants to develop a car made from Nerf material so he can “bump” these oblivious, self-absorbed people and give them a scare. Sounds good to me. I myself want to run into them on the sidewalk more often than I want to move out of their way. I walk and text myself, but I am constantly looking up to see where I’m going and more often than not I’m walking along the curb when doing so as opposed to down the center of the sidewalk. These texting-reading-emailing walkers are like people with huge umbrellas that have no idea how to maneuver in New York City. I made a decision a long time ago that I was tired of bending my umbrella to accommodate theirs. Now I just let the umbrellas collide with no remorse and no decline in my stride.

Our phones have become an extension of our hands. We don’t know what to do without them. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to rewind a scene I missed in an episode of one of my favorite television shows because I was checking my twitter feed or looking at Instagram. So many times that I’ve started trying to leave my phone across the room or in my bag when I’m watching television. And God forbid I forget it at home: let the anxiety begin. I’ve been late to work before because I chose to walk the 7 minutes back to my house from my subway stop after realizing that I didn’t have it. This is because I didn’t want to miss anything -- texts, tweets, Facebook comments -- not because I felt I needed it in case of an emergency. I’m shaking my head at myself.

For those brief periods when we’re asked to turn off our phones (at the movies, at a Broadway show, in the jury box) we should do it. Detach for those few hours. Focus on the reality of the present moment. It ain’t deep. Don’t panic. All the voicemails and texts and tweets will be waiting for you when you get the chance to power up again. It’ll be like Christmas morning.