This morning the Business section of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page (but below the fold) article by Joaquin Palomino reporting on a recent study by the Pew Research Center. The objective of the study was to assay attitudes regarding what counts as the appropriate use of mobile devices, such as cellphones, in public places. Since those public places include concert halls (even though they are never mentioned in Palomino’s article), the Pew findings are likely to be of interest to concert-goers, even those who do not attend such events on a regular basis.
All such concert goers have probably gotten to getting an announcement before the program begins. While that announcement covers safety issues, such as knowing the nearest fire exit, it inevitably includes a request that all mobile devices be turned off so as not to disrupt the performers. This has become somewhat of a litany in performing spaces that include church sanctuaries as well as concert halls and opera houses. For those who attend concerts regularly, it is as familiar as the phrase “lead us not into temptation;” and, as with that verbal excerpt, there always seem to be those who recognize it without taking it seriously.
In Palomino’s article we read that Pew’s results reinforce what most of us have known all along at a casual non-scientific level: “9 out of 10 adults have their cell phone with them at all times, and most between the ages of 18 and 29 see no problem pulling out the gadget in crowded public spaces.” What is more interesting, however, is the Pew finding on what many (including those making that announcement before a concert) would call disruptive behavior: “Ninety percent of young adults surveyed said they are ‘generally OK’ using their cell phone on public transit, 78 percent are fine using it while walking down the street, and 11 percent at a movie theater or other places that are ‘typically quiet.’”
Eleven percent may seem like a small number in the context of that sentence. Bear in mind, however, that it only takes one such disruption to ruin a performance. From that point of view, the Pew findings suggest that the chances of having a concert ruined by poor “mobile etiquette” are one in ten.
Nevertheless, things are not quite that bad. For one thing the demographics of attendees in concert halls differ from those in movie theaters. For another we have different expectations for those spaces. It is socially acceptable to munch audibly on a tub of popcorn in a movie theater, while concert halls rarely allow audience members to bring in anything other than a bottle of water. Still, those who go to concerts regularly can probably recall several incidents when the sound of a ringing cell phone spread through the entire space. The duo of violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo even made that the basis for one of their gags in their A Little Nightmare Music show.
Furthermore, to be fair, cell phones are not the only source of disruption. I have, in the past, written about the “challenge of the quiet,” which I have also called “the unbearable being of silence.” I have suggested that “too many of us are just frightened by the absence of sound the way we are frightened by the absence of light;” and, as a result, we respond to hushed rhetoric, whether it comes from the opening measures of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or one of Anton Webern’s miniatures, with nervous coughing and throat-clearing, just to assure ourselves that sound still exists. Of course Oscar Wilde once said that he liked Wagner because he could carry on a conversation with the person next to him without bothering anybody; and, sure enough, people like that show up in both concert and opera audiences. Furthermore, those prohibitions on food often are about as effective as those about mobile devices, since I have had a few encounters with audience members who unpacked (cellophane wrappers and all) what seemed to be an entire meal (and then devoured it) while a performance was in progress.
However, dwelling on disruptions from cell phones, coughs, conversations, and picnic lunches may not address the underlying problem. Over the last few decades home entertainment technology has advanced to a point that one can almost enjoy a theater-like experience in the comfort of one’s living room (or “home entertainment center” or “man cave,” depending on personal preference). Needless to say, practices like talking on the telephone, having conversations, and eating are all perfectly acceptable in such a setting; and most of us take them for granted. Thus, the difficulty may arise from a growing trend through which many of us, particularly the younger generation that believes in being “always connected,” no longer distinguish public spaces from private ones, whether it involves walking down the street, riding a bus, or going into a concert hall.
Max Weber, whose study of economics was complemented by a rich command of both sociology and philosophy, once observed that a society dominated by market-based thinking risks losing the nature of meaning itself. Perhaps this is an explanation for why so many people are so wrapped up in their “personal” devices that they no longer seem to grasp that a public space is not the same as a private one. Such a loss of meaning can be dangerous, as we know from stories about victims of traffic accidents who were too absorbed in such a personal device to pay attention to anything else. Sitting in a concert hall is, of course, not as dangerous as crossing the street; but the principle is similar. Absorption in the personal not only can be disruptive to others but also can undermine the impact that first-rate performance can have on an individual more occupied with “staying connected” for no reason other than a worldview that places “buying and selling stuff” above all other values.