“Ping!” goes my pocket. And Pavlov’s neurotic dog goes for the cellphone like Wild Bill Hickok going for his holstered Colt. Like it was urgent. Like I was expecting Lebron to phone. Or the president. As if Eva Mendes was finally returning my call.
Other notifications sound more like chimes, signifying a different news source. Same reaction. Another update has come tumbling down out of the ether, demanding my immediate, skittish, slavish attention.
Can’t not look.
Over the last week, my pants pocket became a cacophony of news alerts. The Boston Marathon bombing. The bloody manhunt. The gun control vote in the U.S. Senate. The deadly Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The faltering push for immigration reform. Miami cops smashing maquinitas. A Mississippi Elvis impersonator sending out ricin dispatches.
Can’t not look.
The ping trumps all circumstances. Finishing off my income taxes. Can’t not look. At dinner with friends. Can’t not look. Watching Game of Thrones — even as Daenerys Targaryen rallies her dragons. Can’t not look. Conversing with the woman on the next barstool. Can’t help myself. Sitting through a public meeting. Same. Waiting for the stoplight to change. Can’t not look.
Long, long ago, in the days before the iPhone became a vital organ of the human anatomy, the term “news junkie” was only a figurative term. Not an actual pathology.
Last week, it became a full-blown addiction, as a cascade of news feeds gushed out of the smoke and blood and anguish and confusion, until the 2013 Boston Marathon became some new epoch of American culture. Probably of world culture.
These last few days in Boston commanded our collective attention the way we couldn’t stop watching TV after the 1986 space shuttle disaster, or OJ’s 1994 slow-mo white Bronco flight from justice down an LA freeway. I kept thinking, too, of our collective inability to tear away from the television screens in the days after 9/11.
Except this time, the news has come gushing out of the Internet. And it’s inescapable. It pings, incessantly, in our pockets and purses. It leaks out of the office computers at work, hidden from the bosses behind other screens, where we can sneak onto other tabs every minute or so and hit the refresh button for a dozen news websites.
My Facebook (and actual real life) friend Jodi Mailander, a former Herald reporter, captured the frenetic mood nicely in a Facebook post on Friday morning: “You know life has changed when the newsfeeds you subscribe to can’t even keep up with the news.”
It comes in fits and starts and jerks and tweets, an incessant stream of hyper bursts of information. And misinformation. Doesn’t matter. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. Right, wrong, informative, misleading, cautious, insane, with a mix of the usual vicious, racist and xenophobic. We consume this stuff differently than reading a newspaper or watching the dignified anchor of a network news program. Suddenly, the news business is more like watching greyhounds at the dog track than tuning into Walter Cronkite. We’re taking it in like crack heads with a $20 rock.
Supposedly reliable news sources like CNN and Fox and AP screwed it up last week, trying to pluck the truth out of so much cyber mendacity. (The New York Post went wildly wrong, but the “supposedly reliable” label doesn’t quite fit.) Innocents were implicated but who really cared? We were all on to the next batch of tidbits. Who was this dark-skinned male? Who was this white supremacist? Who was this suspicious Saudi? Who was this student from Brown Universitiy?
Can’t not look.
As the public found itself unable to take its eyes off their hand-held devices last week, the Florida Senate approved a bill that would ban texting while driving, though only as a so-called “second offense.” In other words, if a policeman pulled you over for firing bursts from an assault weapon at the car in the next lane, and he noticed that you had also been texting your cousin “U want 2 go C movie?” he can add a $30 ticket to your rap sheet..
I’m afraid we’re too far gone to be saved by new legislation. Western Europe made it illegal back in the 1980s to talk on cell phones and drive, making for an easy transition to a texting ban. Only 10 states in the U.S., none of them called Florida, passed legislation against cell phone talking and driving. And now we can hardly get out of first gear without communicating, one way or another, through the phone.
The notion that a very tepid state law against texting might convince Florida drivers to lay down their iPhones seems almost fanciful. In 2011, a Centers for Disease Control survey found that 30 percent of American drivers admitted to texting while driving. I suspect a lie detector test might double the percentage.
The survey didn’t examine what happens when American drivers are zooming down the I-95 express lane at 82 miles an hour and hear that ping.
Bomber shot. Brother flees. New photos. Uncle speaks. Policeman shot. Car hijacked. Cops surround house. Gunshots. Captured. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping.
Can’t not look.