E-Tools Of Satan

bundled-up woman talking on cell phone
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I know the term "nanny state" is supposed to be derogatory but I don't have a problem with it. Especially if the nanny is British, old-fashioned, strict and spiny, like Margaret Thatcher.

So Carl Kruger doesn't really fit my image of the archetypal nanny statesman. Kruger is a Democratic state representative from Brooklyn and he has the accent and schlumpy bearing to prove it.

Wednesday, he became my current hero as he introduced legislation to ban iPods from pedestrian use in the intersections of big city streets in New York state. If Rep. Kruger's wisdom prevails, anyone nabbed crossing a street with iPod pods crammed in their ears will get tagged with a $100 ticket. If only Barney Fife could have lived to see this day.

Kindly Kruger is doing this for our own good. He's concerned about the safety of pedestrians. Apparently, a 21-year-old man in his district was, um, permanently unplugged when he stepped into traffic while listening to his music-spewing device. Personally, I am inclined to think that such incidents, however tragic, show Darwinism at work. Perhaps I am being uncharitable. Whatever: my interest in Kruger's legislation lies elsewhere.

Portable devices such as the iPod and the cell phone are dangerous to the mental health of homo sapiens living together in crowded quarters, if not to actual life and limb. They foster rudeness and public narcissism at a time when those vices need no encouragement. Kruger aptly calls it "iPod Oblivion."

Many mobile technologies foster this obliviousness: BlackBerrys, GameBoys, those hideous Bluetooth dealies that jut from your ears like Frankenstein plugs, portable mini-DVD players and cell phones have some tactile, addictive quality that makes people fondle them incessantly.

These devices not only "connect" people, they disconnect them, too. Talking full volume on a phone in a crowded waiting room to your old roommate about his long battle with eczema may connect you to your faraway friend, but it alienates you from the people in the room. Indeed, it signals disrespect to them and their privacy.

Now, it appears these mobile e-tools of Satan provide precisely what many people navigating the outside world want and need: obliviousness. Indeed, young people see it as a basic human right, like free speech and gun-toting.

Lots of people want to tune the world out, a feeling to which I am thoroughly sympathetic. But the time to tune out the world is not when you are in the world. The guy at CVS today who let the door swing shut on me because he was yakking on his gizmo should not be oblivious in that situation. Yes, that is a moral, normative declaration: he ought to have held the door for me.

Nanny Kruger rightly says that if you want to listen to music outside in the city, take a walk in the park or sit on a bench. Do not impose your oblivious, impervious, me-first self to the world in a way that communicates, "You don't exist."

A friend who has lived in a large Washington apartment building for many years reports that as the neighborhood yuppifies and her "neighbors" in the building become steadily more affluent, and younger, they have also become ruder.

She blames the pods. Plugged into music, phones or PDAs, her neighbors don't hold the elevator, hold the grocery bag while a neighbor fiddles for a key, or even say "hello" in the lobby. Pod people: I wish they'd all go away, as Frank Zappa might have sung.

I spent a week on a university campus recently, playing amateur anthropologist. I noticed that as students left class, most of them instantly got out their cell phones or attached their umbilical iPod cords. I rarely saw groups talking or laughing or just interacting. It seemed isolating.

Am I making technology a scapegoat for the decline of common courtesy? Sure, what's so wrong with scapegoats? But, really, I am not a Luddite; I am a crank.

Actually, this kind of use of technology as a shield, I think, reflects a social isolation — and a real desire to be oblivious to a nasty, snarky world — that is very real. I think there is no established etiquette for using this technology around others and that creates a vacuum: rudeness abhors a vacuum. Jugular-seeking marketers know this perfectly well and they make ads that try to make us feel OK about being hedonistic, unencumbered consumers.

But the march to rudeness is not inexorable. Grownups respond to skilled nanny-ing just like children. For example, many stores, restaurants, trains and waiting rooms now prohibit cell phones. People often scold cell phone boors in public. And I actually think that as a result, cell phone manners are slowly improving.

Similarly, we will increasingly tease and torture goons who use BlackBerrys during conversations, at the dinner table and in meetings. A few companies now have "no CrackBerry in meetings" rules. Perhaps PDA-etiquette will also improve.

Probably the law or civic initiative that most influenced my own behavior was anti-litter signs. That may seem silly (OK, it is), but I am constitutionally incapable of littering. That's because I vividly recall being terrified by signs on Sheridan Road outside Chicago threatening litterers with fines of $15.00. (I thought it was $1,500!) We were taught about it in school, too. Now, littering was probably a big problem in the '50s and '60s when car ownership, suburbs and "to go" exploded. Nothing is more disrespectful of your surrounding and neighbors than littering. And nannies helped curb it. There is hope from e-tool litter and rudeness.

Obviously, manners and basic courtesy are meant to be taught by parents (and communities), not state representatives. But it doesn't logically follow that the government we fund and participate in can't try to contribute.

So Rep. Kruger is part of that great invisible hand that helps keep us mildly predatory, featherless bipeds from violent anarchy. He's part of the nanny state. I don't know why conservatives hate that idea so much. Who else but nannies will discipline us brats and teach the manners, traditions of respect, and high culture that conservatives are supposed to like so much?

As much as I might wish for it, I don't expect a surge in courtesy-vigilantes to hit the streets. But I do at least expect that if you're reading this indoors, you'll take your hat off.

Thank you very much.

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer