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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Texting into oblivion

The Local Lens
By Thom Nickels

In Center City recently, while walking along Broad Street, I collided with a woman who was texting while walking. Because she was in zombie mode, she barely felt the clash of our arms and shoulders. She uttered no word of apology for walking into me but simply went on texting while moving to a different part of the sidewalk (presumably to collide with somebody else later on). Later, on Walnut Street, I had to sidestep another walking texter, this one an executive type with two devices and wires in his ears. That evening, in Starbucks, I sat across from a couple (obviously on a date) when, to the man’s chagrin—he was noticeably frowning—his date launched into a texting frenzy. He sat there for a long time hunched forward in his chair, looking more and more stressed until finally his friend quit texting and put the device in her purse.

During rush hour on the Market-Frankford line on any given day, one can see armies of texting zombies, their eyes fixed on their devices. Unique subway theatrical events, like the time a homeless man with a cardboard sign around his neck did a stump speech to 30 or more passengers about needing some sandwiches, are lost on the zombies. The man’s unique presentation, which included a detailed description of his wife and children holed up in a room in Center City’s Parker Hotel, all starving, was the most dramatic monologue I’ve listened to since I hear Philly actor Will Struts impersonate poet Walt Whitman.

Even getting off the EL at Girard to board the Route 15, one notices an increase in zombie texters. Texting under the El, in fact, has a peculiar frantic quality, as if the presence of train tracks somehow helps the movement of human fingers. Hanging around so many texters, I have to say that I’ve often felt inadequate with just a book in my hand. Since the books I usually carry are not even contained within a Kindle—but real books you can underline and save on your library shelf—I feel a sense of pride about not overusing every technological innovation. Still, one close look at Girard Avenue near Front is an intense snapshot of processions of zombies ambling every which way, most with hand held devices, some wired, some wired on bikes, and some—you just know it---thinking about taking out their devices and getting wired after dinner. Often to give my eyes a rest from reading, I’ll watch the uneven, walking styles of these zombies; their stop and go texting strut, heads down, as they walk across Front just missing telephone poles, the Route 5 bus, a Pepsi truck or taxi, a woman pulling two infants in a makeshift baby carriage, or even other wired up zombies. Once I saw a near collision of zombies with a small cluster of methadone clinic people. Since some of the methadone people were also texting, the confusion caused somebody to drop a device. The cluster of zombies jumped at the sound: whose Holy Grail had been broken into two parts?

It was as if the sun had fallen from the sky.

Put all this to music and you have something like Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin, or even a Woody Allen film, but my thoughts are anything but stuck on funny when I recall the sad story I heard the other day from a guy who told me how his twenty-eight year old, eight- month pregnant fiancé was struck and killed by a motorcyclist on Roosevelt Blvd. last year.

“I always worried about her because whenever we’d walk across a street, she’d never look where she was going but just keep her head down and text. She would walk into traffic and not take her eyes off the text and I’d have to pull her back and say ‘Yo, this is dangerous, someday something’s going to happen to you.’”

Kevin told me there were times when his girlfriend would walk into the street while texting, causing traffic to come to a screeching halt, missing her by a hair. While Kevin says he has no proof she was texting the night she and her unborn baby were hit and killed on Roosevelt Blvd., he says he’s pretty certain that’s what happened.

Philadelphia may soon be handing $120 fines to people who walk and text. Other cities in the U.S. are beginning to look at the problem, especially around train stations and transportation centers. Jim Fox, Septa’s director of system safety and risk management, told the Huffington Post that “Septa recorded reports from bus drivers and train engineers who say they nearly hit pedestrians who didn’t appear to hear them sound their horns because they were distracted by their electronic devices.”

Quite a number of people have been killed by Septa trains because they were wearing headphones or using cell phones while walking.

“To date, 1,152 people were treated in the emergency room in the United States for injuries suffered while walking and using a cell phone or other electronic devices,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission has reported.

The obsession with texting has also affected the way many people communicate. There are now large numbers of young people who make it a point never to talk on the phone. Talking, as in using your mouth the old fashioned cell phone way, is considered passé. Once more, the growth of texting has created a new and sometimes confusing abbreviated written language of internet acronyms and shorthand that in many cases has taken the place of Standard English. The influence of this new language is so powerful that many students have lost the capacity to differentiate between text-talk English and the English you need to know for writing a term paper.

What’s worse than Texting zombie hood? I’d say it is the inability of many students to do cursive writing. The notion of intelligent people only being able to print in block letters, like six year olds, is not a happy one.

“What happens when young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?” The New York Times asks.

They shrug their shoulders and start to text, that’s what.

Ah, you say, but what are they texting—what are they saying?

You can bet your kindergarten alphabet it’s nothing that will go down in history…