A brief outburst, prompted by nothing in particular.

Well, that’s lie. Prompted by this experience: I found myself walking into the Tom Patterson Theatre at Stratford in a crowd of teenaged high school students, and I was worried. I feared they’d be noisy and inattentive, and I particularly feared I’d be seeing faces lit up by incessant texting in the crowd. I mean, I wasn’t in a panic or anticipatory rage. But I worried.

And then none of that happened. Or rather, despite the many “turn off your phones” signs, and despite the verbal requests by the ushers before the show to please turn off all phones and other noise-emitting devices, two phones went off. But they didn’t belong to teenagers. They belonged to two middle-aged punters. And I felt a bit bad about my worries — because I should have known better, based on my own prior experiences.

Look: I know the young are attached to their cell phone screens with appalling ferocity. I lecture for a living. I spend many hours sitting in theatres. I’m depressingly familiar with the tell-tale head tilt. But what affects me more, as an audience member (and, if my teaching counts, as a performer), is a phone that rings. Or buzzes. A phone that draws attention to itself in a way that is impossible to ignore. And that particular disruption happens far more frequently thanks to people who did not grow up with cell phones in their hands.

There’s the accidental ring, followed by a panicked riffling through a bag. But there’s also far worse. There’s the “I’ll just let it ring and hope they hang up” move. There’s the variant on that move, where the same phone immediately goes off again. There’s the further variation, where that second round of ring tones is then followed by the voicemail-received alert. And so on.

Here are a few of the most egregious incidents I’ve witnessed myself lately:

– in Munich, sitting in the front row at a play. Phone goes off right next to me. Older guy pulls it out of his jacket pocket, can’t figure out how to turn off the ring tone, simply let’s it ring and puts it back in his pocket. Phone goes off again. He pulls it put again, puts it back again. Phone goes off yet again. Now he finally turns it off completely.

– at Shaw, last year. Middle-aged woman next to me gets multiple text messages, with alert tones, keeps pulling her phone out of her bag, ANSWERS the texts, puts it back. Yes, it could have been an emergency, but if it was, it didn’t stop her from coming back after the intermission. Also, if I’m having an emergency that requires being available by phone I might consider giving up on the show.

– at Soulpepper, just a few weeks ago. Middle-aged woman in front of me answers multiple text messages, again with alert tones; pulls out a file folder form her bag and refers to it to answer a text, schedules multiple meetings in her calendar. Row 3.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for aged, technologically challenged audience members — though surely most people know how to turn their phones on and off. But none of these cases were that. All three were older than me, but not that much older. And all three displayed precisely that casual disregard for people around them (and for the actors in front of them) that in so many diatribes are reflexively ascribed to millennial or “youth.”

It’s not that I don’t think there’s a real problem with shortened attention spans in our culture. I firmly believe there is. And I do believe it affects the generations that have grown up with portable multimedia devices more than my own generations, or those older than us. But there’s a difference between how different generations handle that state of permanent distraction. Another bit of anecdotal evidence: I regularly see students on cell phones (or using their laptops for things that have nothing to do with class). In my own lectures, I tend to call those students out when I catch them. But what happens very rarely is that these distracted multitudes draw attention to themselves in a way that doesn’t just distract me (they do that) but in a way that actively disrupts the classroom. Their phones rarely ring, chime, beep, or whistle. Obviously: who calls people anymore? And who needs aural text alerts? That’s like a phone camera with a shutter sound, right?

In other words: as distracted as the born-digitals may be by their interactive devices, they by and large are much better at keeping that distraction to themselves. Those of us born with phones that were attached to wires and walls are far more likely to advertise our own distraction to the world in a way that doesn’t just signal that we’re not paying attention, but actively makes it harder for others to stay focused — and for performers to do their job. If it’s true that we’re better than the Facebook-Twitter-Instagram-Snapchat-whatever-it-is-now-sorry-I’m-old-and-out-of-touch generation at interacting with other people directly, without digital intermediaries (and that’s a big if), it’s also true that we are more liable to affect those around us directly. We’re much worse at shutting the world around us out — and at leaving the world around us alone.

This is not a post in support of cell phones in theatres or classrooms. At all. It’s a post that’s asking for a more nuanced debate on the presence of those things in our public spaces; and for a debate that recognizes that cell phones are often far more disruptive in the hands of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers than in the hands of the Millennials we love to blame for the decline of civilization.

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