When you live in an urban area, you will have the experience of seeing people conducing chat conversations with their mobile phones in public places. This is an exciting new possibility of technology, that enables us to talk with anyone, anywhere, and seemingly without disturbing others, because these conversations are silent.
There is one catch: The new technology doesn’t come with an ethic. Although it does avoid the scruples of established moral rules condemning loud interruption by being completely silent, as far as I can tell there are no explicit rules governing the ethics of mobile phone debates.
People seem to assume that it’s harmless, that the new possibilities don’t interfere with the old morals. You can be in two worlds at the same time: The virtual world in which you are connected with all your real friends through chat programs, and the real world where your body sits around and smiles absent-mindedly. As long as you live in two completely separate worlds, there’s no problem.
But we live in one world. This realization perhaps marks the overcoming of adolescence, and immediately renders the chat issue problematic. The people you’re talking to on the phone will have to be regarded as real people, and ignoring them in favor of a conversation partner who sits next to you in the flesh becomes as bad as the other way around.
The ethics we can offer contains prudence. Treat the people you talk to on the chat program as real people, and ask others to wait if you talk with them. Perhaps paradoxically, we need to respect the people in the machine more, and not less, in order to maintain the standard of decency toward the people actually sitting next to us, the same standard of decency we apply automatically to them when the machine is absent.