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L.A. Beat

Cell phone madness — whatever happened to lighters?

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It is official. Cell phones are truly a force to be reckoned with, and one that are not going away.
I was busy rockin' away in my own nerdy way the other evening, while my eyes searched the Slice, observing all the quirks of evening life.  It seemed that at nearly every table, someone was involved in texting or was otherwise engaged by a portable device, their faces alit by a mild green glow. Meanwhile a sweet indie rock band was blasting away just metres from us all, playing their hearts out and hoping to make a few bucks to cover their motel bill, while a dozen people were far more fascinated by these little pocket secretaries. Some of these toys are named after sweet little fruits, acting like pocket laptop computers, while others feature upper-case I's and can do things unimaginable just a decade ago. All of them are instant portals to a limitless world of information; offering access to the world's inner sanctum at the touch of your fingertips, even when you’re out at the bar.
So I found myself thinking, 'if I was on stage - the only reason I would want a cell phone in my field of vision, would be if it was attached to some adoring fan poking it in my face like a camera.'  Yet here we were, all surrounded by musicians, patrons, fellow music lovers and other night-dwellers -  and we are seemingly oblivious to these little gadgets; so imbedded in our consciousness and societal fabric,  that they often seem to be extensions of our arms.  

No sooner had the house lights gone down when I noticed four young ladies, all sitting together but ignoring each other, otherwise engaged in their phones and their social networking. I’m playing air-drums, rocking out a few tables away,  mindlessly swaying to the chords of  these musicians sweating on stage, and these girls are somewhere else completely.

Therefore, being a curious person, when I awoke somewhat out of sorts the next morning, I did some instant research, only to find several interesting examples illustrating similar phenomena. Ripped from random news websites this evening, are these following headlines culled from a 2010 Google news search. 

• "A Kapahulu man, upset at a 19-year-old woman for continuously text messaging during last night's Tower of Power concert, was arrested at the Blaisdell Center after he took the woman's cell phone, police said.  The incident happened at about 8:30 last night. Police said the 39-year-old man pushed the woman, took her cell phone and walked away."

• "It used to be when you were waiting for a bus or standing in a line-up, people would talk to each other; but now, most people are so preoccupied with their doodads that they do not even notice the people around them. I have seen people walking while they are doing these things and almost colliding with other pedestrians or objects that are in their path. They are losing the art of conversation and the social skills they require to interact with other people. This is a very sad situation causing the sense of community to disappear."

• "If you don’t want to attend an event, then don’t go to it. However, do not ruin if for others — and for yourself – by texting. It really is a form of disrespecting the performers, other audience members and even the texters themselves who, no matter what anyone says about multi-tasking, can’t possibly be getting enjoyment or enlightenment from the performance."

I don’t really mean to come off sounding like some fuddy-duddy old prude, but I must applaud the 'please shut off your mobile devices'  messages that are screened before films. I only wish that they could be applied to live music as well. When I see a dozen people ignoring the very performers that they have paid to see, it makes me somewhat sad. Because the most distracting part about it all was not the dim cell-phone glows, nor even the non-plussed indifference – it was the foregoing of all attention to the live performers on stage in exchange for communicating via these little robots. I think it used to be referred to as etiquette or manners, but those things may have been made obsolete by innocent-sounding Apples and Blackberries.

I’ll admit, I’ve been something of a hypocrite in the past; as I’ve played pool on the dollar table while certain bands are opening the evening. But even then, I’m still engaged by the stage, for I simply turn my head or and there they are.  I suppose I’m old-fashioned though, believing that if you cannot leave your phones and instant service machines in your pockets or purses, set to silently vibrate while you enjoy an event, you at least owe it to the performers, to other audience members and to yourself, to pay attention to what you are seeing or hearing. How much do you like being ignored when you’re trying to tell a story? Not much, I’d wager.  But these devices are here though, and they’re not going away.

At a Saddledome show, lighters in the air have been replaced by little video screens. Whether we're enjoying concerts, movie theatres, live theatre, banquets with speeches, business meetings, college classes and even during silent yoga sessions, (according to a friend of mine), they’re here and they have enslaved some of us completely.

The website www. even has an official entry that describes those individuals who use their cell phones badly - "text-holes". A text-hole is either:

A) Someone who texts on their cell phone in inappropriate places, like movie theatres, concerts, plays, or during sex; 
B) Someone who talks loudly with their aunt, their babysitter, their investment counsellor, in public and unaware that they seem like a solitary lunatic raving to themselves.
C) Someone with a painful ringtone, which just might ruin the bridge and harmony of a song’s climax, essentially tainting someone else’s evening out, all because some text-hole decided that the new 50 Cent beat was worth paying $1.99 for, and now needs to hear it every 45 seconds.

I must admit, I fear I'm getting old. There was a point in my life during which I did not realize that volume controls even had a 'down' function, but now that button is familiar and smooth to the touch. But was it so long ago, that a 'night out on the town' was just that; a reserved night away from telephones and voicemail and email?  I know I will always be in the minority; for I’ve opted to metaphorically continue riding a horse, rather than jump onboard the techno-train. I know I’m also some arguably paranoid little man who enjoys writing neurotic leftist rambles. But it just seems to me like these little things are everywhere nowadays – always in the corner of my vision – always vibrating, buzzing, ringing and singing. They distract and attract, and have made YouTube a smash sensation and perpetual source of live concert footage. They interrupt my dinner dates, my video games with friends, and yes, they even interrupt my Friday nights.

So what do we do about these things? Do we form some cell-phone ethics committee, which revokes your right to use a phone if you do not vibrate according to legislation and only during officially approved situations?  I feel that the more important question is not about these machines that have captured our souls, but is about those very souls themselves. Why must we take our answering machines everywhere we go? Why must my dinner conversation go sour because I could not compete with some letters on your private screen? Why must we have instant access to silly Internet games 24 hours and day, 7 days a week? Most importantly, why did those four cute girls totally miss out on that unbelievable drum solo, because they were too enthralled by their pocket calculators?

The sad part is, is that most people will just say, “Yeah, but Chris, there are people that might need to get a hold of me. I’ve been waiting to hear about plans for tomorrow night. I absolutely need to know the score on the hockey game at any given moment. Someone has been leaving comments on my Facebook page, and I must monitor them continuously. Not to mention, I’ve been recording this whole concert the entire time on my camera-phone, and now there are hundreds of people all over Canada that can watch it now, thanks to me.  And once I put it on Youtube, this band can be shared with millions of people around the world. If I didn’t have my phone handy, this band may never have made 1,000 new fans.”

(Note: I don't have friends that actually talk like that, but the point is clear enough.)

And in response, I can merely smile, shrug it off and blush a little, while trying to stammer something witty, like, "but where are those 1,000 people right now, while this band is kickin' royal ass onstage and these four girls with their phones are taking up seats, ignoring the band that’s playing intimately right in front of them? Why pay for a live performance when you’d rather have your attention invested in a 2-inch glowing screen?”
But just then, a sweet guitar solo kicked in, and all conversations at The Slice were left meaningless and forgotten, via text messages or otherwise.

—    By Chris Hibbard, Music Lover, Special to L.A. Beat
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