Manners, safety and technology

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 5:48 p.m.

My 15-year-old daughter walked in the door from school this week, her bulging bag of schoolbooks hanging from her arm, her iPod earphones stuck in her ears and a huge grin plastered on her face.

“Wait, wait,” she said as I attempted to verbally greet her. Before I could, she picked up an invisible microphone and proceeded to dance and sing and try to share with me whatever song it was that was blaring into her ears.

She’s very happy with the new iPod she got for Christmas, and she apparently had had a pretty good day at school. How can that be bad?

The next morning I read about the 19-year-old Biddeford man who was struck by a train on his way to school. The MP3 player he was listening to apparently had rendered him unable to hear the approaching passenger train.

Last year a New York state senator proposed legislation that would legally ban the use of electronic devices such as cell phones, music players and BlackBerrys while crossing city streets. Democrat Carl Krueger proposed the ban after a 23-year-old man, with headphones on, was killed after he walked into the path of a bus in Brooklyn. He called the problem “iPod oblivion.”

I’m not proposing that Maine legislators take on the issue. God knows they have enough to do. But it does cause one to pause and reflect on the potential dangers of a society that has become so well-connected that it is completely disconnected.

Linda Stone, a well-known technologist, whatever that is, and a former VP at Microsoft, calls this techno era we are in the midst of the age of “Continuous Partial Attention.” A spot-on description, I would say.

It used to be that sticking one’s nose into a book or a magazine was the best way to ward off unwanted conversation on a bus or an airplane. Today it’s the presence of earphones. It’s the technological equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, “I’M NOT LISTENING.”

It’s just not considered quite as rude, and in fact has become widely accepted.

It used to be that people walking down the street or in the grocery aisle talking to themselves were thought to be suffering perhaps from a form of mental illness. Today, chances are much greater that they have a wireless cell phone contraption attached to their ear and are in the middle of a critical business meeting while picking up something for supper.

The business at hand, such as checking out at the grocery store, is conducted with a mere nod of the head for acknowledgment, a quick swipe of the debit card and nary a word to the cashier.

I’m not so naive that I don’t understand that there is no U-turn on this technological highway we are on. But it doesn’t excuse the disappearance of basic manners, such as the polite acknowledgment of those around you.

Music is a wonderful thing, but there is also something to be said for peace and quiet. I wonder sometimes whether our children will ever truly appreciate that luxury. When I walk the dog I relish the peacefulness of a quiet neighborhood. My daughter savors the time of solitude with her iPod.

That’s OK, I guess, as long as there’s no train approaching.

Manners and safety have always been important lessons for parents to teach their children. Today we just have to widen our thinking to ensure the devices in their ears are not so loud that they tune out the world around them — for the sake of safety and civility.

That being said, in order for us to stay better connected to our kids, perhaps sometimes we should just snatch one of those earphones from their ears, stick it in our own and dance right along beside them.

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