A young woman I know got the last bus out of New York before the big blackout of '03. When the bus hadn't arrived in Washington nearly an hour after it was scheduled, we began asking why. Nobody knew when to expect it or even if it was on the way.
Nobody thought this unusual. Bus terminals frequently wear the ambience of a Third World warehouse - cheap, inefficient and lacking most of the amenities available at airports and even train stations. It's (shhhhh!) a class issue.
But what made this particular bus unusual was that when it finally pulled in, no one on it had heard about the blackout. None of the cell phones which ordinarily grow out of every teenage ear seemed to have been on the bus. It was a unique oasis of silence in the world of the wired.
When I took a bus on Cape Cod earlier in the summer, passengers chattered all around me, telling friends and family who was on time and who wasn't. Passengers exchanged information about weather, ferry crossings and traffic jams.
Even where posted signs ask that cell phones be turned off, as in doctor's offices and public spaces, they often aren't. The latest phenomena with cell phones are "flash mobs," sometimes mislabeled as "smart mobs," the geek chic of the summer culture.
Messages organize strangers to meet at a certain place at a certain time to engage in pointless performance. Organizers use e-mails, cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots and Blackberrys to spread a network of young men and women with time on their hands. Well, why not? Their parents and grandparents were goldfish swallowers and panty raiders.
These frivolous flockers arrive to recite nonsensical syllables, cry out birdcalls, liberate balloons of a specified color, or rush into a store to ask for a certain commodity. More than a hundred New Yorkers descended on Macy's in Manhattan the other day and went to the Oriental carpet department to demand to see "love rugs for the commune." After 10 minutes of oohing and ahhing over a $10,000 carpet, they disappeared, as if on a magic carpet, never to see each other again. Salesmen were mystified.
A photographer who documents and publicizes flash mobs on a Web site describes himself as someone who likes "anything that shakes people up from their normal routine." The slogan of a Minneapolis mob was, "Who Says You Can't Have Fun with 200 Strangers?"
This could be chalked up to the silliness of summer, "gorilla" theater as monkey business, sound if not fury, without meaning. But its foundations are rooted in a serious application of the power of technology, for good or ill.