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Whether you are dating someone, interviewing someone, or just meeting someone for the first time, there is a special quality about face-to-face interactions. You can catch the subtle tone in their voice, see their expression as it changes from sad to outraged, and you can look them in the eye to see if you trust them.

So it’s unfortunate that real-life interactions are on the outs as cell phone conversations, texting, instant messaging and Facebook emails start to take up more of our time. For young people especially, having a cell phone or iPod in hand and at the ready is the default mode while walking the streets. That means much less chance of conversation with the people who populate their real lives.

Last weekend I went back for a reunion of old friends at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia, located in the heartland of America. While wandering around campus, I noticed that just about every student had a cell phone out to read text messages or check voicemails as they walked around — whether they had friends nearby or not. What was once something you did in private or during downtime has now become an obsession. We all need to find out what else is going on at other locations, to the detriment of the current situation happening right there in front of us.

The unspoken subtext of checking text messages in front of friends is: “Somewhere else there is someone who I care about more than you. I want to know what they have to say more than what you have to say to me now.” The idea of being present in the moment is disappearing faster than you can say, “Hey, I’ve got to take this call…” We devalue our current situation, the friends and family around us, our surroundings and setting, for something going on somewhere else.

Last year when I visited London, I noticed an acute case of what I call gadget haze, with so many hipster urbanites connected at all times to smart phones or MP3 players. When I got lost, I asked a woman if I was near SoHo, and it took a moment for her to realize that someone real in front of her was actually talking to her. Slowly, she removed herself from her bubble, took off her headset, asked me to repeat what I said. Eventually she pointed me in the right direction and put the headset back on.

What amazed me was the delay between the time I asked my question and her reply. It was almost as though I was talking to her in a foreign language. She had to take a moment to come out of her reverie, to literally come back to the present moment and the place where she stood to talk to someone right in front of her. With ever more immersive experiences on mobile devices — from music to TV to games — I wonder whether the gadget haze will grow thicker and thicker, making it even more difficult for others to break through.

Killing Time, Killing the Moment

Of course, I am not anti-technology and am in awe of the iPhone just like the next gadget freak. But when my friend chooses to tap on his iPhone while we are out having dinner, I feel like I’m having dinner for three: me, him and the iPhone. We often joke about his techno-habit and how hard it is to break, but the joke gets old when it becomes reality.

In many cases, having a cell phone around can be a huge help. In emergencies, you can call the police or a friend quickly. If you’re running late, you can tell someone where you are. And having an iPod or MP3 player is great when you’re out exercising or if you have a long cross-country flight.

The problem is that despite all our raging against bad cell phone habits, they persist unabated. People talk on cell phones out at restaurants, they text while driving, and there’s even a push to bring safe cell phone calling onto airplanes at all times. It might be safe for the pilot, but not for the rest of us stuck next to people gabbing on their phones endlessly for entire flights. You just know it will happen. Crying babies, by comparison, will start to sound like the London Symphony Orchestra.

When I went back to my old college, I met up with a friend about my age (i.e. well removed from college age) and we chatted about the overuse of cell phones.

“Even people my age are addicted to them,” he said. “I try not to have them on me at all. I just don’t like the idea of people being able to contact me wherever I go. I’d rather be with the people around me than worry about who’s going to call me, who I need to call back and all that. It’s really a sad state of our society to see so many people tied down to their cell phones.”

Indeed. There have even been studies showing that cell phones are causing the same problems as other addictive behavior. According to a University of Florida news story, a Japanese study found that children with cell phones often won’t make friends with other children who don’t have cell phones. Plus, a British study of college students found that 7% of students had lost a relationship or job due to cell phone usage.

That’s a warning sign that we as a society are giving in to our electronic tether, our techno-fetishes, and putting more faith in them than in our own real-world concerns. I wonder whether more electronic communication will mean less face-to-face conversations, and we’ll have generations of people who are more comfortable texting their friends than talking to them in person. Or perhaps they will prefer to sit around and listen to their own iPods separately rather than having the shared experience of hearing music on a stereo system.

About the only counterbalance to our techno-obsession is the growing trend of public places such as libraries and restaurants that ban or block cell phone usage. I’ve also heard of plenty of weekend retreats that require people to leave cell phones off or at home. It shouldn’t take long before these technology-free zones become popular oases for a public that’s drifting more and more into a gadget haze.

What do you think? Are we as a society becoming obsessed with cell phones, texting and portable MP3 players? Is that a good or bad thing and what’s the best way you find to balance tech usage and unplugging? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of youths using cell phones in Rome by Aidan McMichael via Flickr.

UPDATE: Cynthia Brumfield describes her own gadget haze in a great post on IP Democracy. She was plugged into her iPhone on a recent flight and had no memory of what happened around her for hours and hours:

Then it hit me: being constantly connected to gadgets is akin to what psychologists called a dissociative disorder. Dissociation generally means not being connected and in its extreme form is the hallmark of true mental illness…Based on my recent experience, [I wonder] if we’re all making ourselves slightly mentally ill by tuning in and dropping out (and not in the good ’60s kind of way either).

Others were quick to counter that technology has actually made us more connected to people rather than just disconnected with our present situation. Kimon Keramidas said the idea of cell phones destroying face-to-face interactions was a bit of “techno-reactionism,” while Terry Heatons says that, “If we’re going to be a connected culture, then we have to respect that our need for the absolute attention of our dinner date is self-serving and probably always has been.”

Perhaps, but I also wonder what the long-term effects will be of devaluing our current situation, our current surroundings and the people we spend time with in person. Personally, I don’t long to be in the company of people who are constantly connected to someone else. And it’s not just talking to other people on cell phones. Smart phones allow people to be connected to the Internet for sports scores, news and weather updates — all at your fingertips no matter what your social situation.