CHICAGO — Well, we've finally passed a worrisome milestone on the road to the end of the world.Not the Mayan calendar's prophecy about life-as-we-know-it ceasing to exist on Dec. 21, 2012 -- most Mexican archeology experts have agreed that the 1,300-year-old stone tablet said to predict destruction merely marks the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar.
No, I'm talking about the intellectual apocalypse from which Mayan priests, with their prayerful chants and incense, cannot save us. I speak, of course, of the slow and painful self-destruction that will surely result from our perverse relationship with our cellphones.
I'm not using the word "our" as a rhetorical device so I can make pious judgments. I'm open and honest about the sad fact that an iPhone is my constant companion -- the first "face" I gaze at in the morning and the last "voice" I hear at night -- and I'm starting to think that, one way or another, smartphones are going to lead us all to a premature end.
As soon as I heard that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for a nationwide ban on distracting portable electronic devices I began to wonder: Now who could ever oppose keeping innocents from getting run over by a driver who was busy texting a friend? But we're so far past traffic accidents being the worse or most prevalent smartphone-related peril we face, you have to question if it would really make any difference in the long run.
Our everyday lives have been so astronomically enriched by the development of cellphones and web-enabled smartphones that it's nearly impossible to quantify how much better off we are even with their terrible distractions.
Mobile applications on phones make our lives more productive, uplift the poor in countries all over the world, and connect countless parents, via text messaging, to children who wouldn't want to be caught dead talking on the phone with mom in front of teen peers -- so hallelujah for that.
But this good thing is quickly becoming too much so.
Just months after the National Center for Education Statistics released its devastating portrait of a nation where less than one-third of public schoolchildren have proficiency in geography, the subject covering basic map-reading skills and knowledge about the Earth's surface, a college professor lamented to me that his recent teacher graduates were convinced that such knowledge was unnecessary because GPS systems and Google Earth programs are easily accessible on smartphones.
(If this doesn't foretell the end of civilization, I don't know what does.)
In my mind, these recent college grads are the same young people a University of Rhode Island study found to be sleep-deprived, anxious and depressed because their phones kept them awake at night with a steady and irresistible barrage of emails, texts and phone calls.
But even they are not nearly as addicted -- or irresponsible -- as surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses who text, talk, check their Facebook profiles, and monitor eBay bids on their phones during surgery.
As a New York Times report recently spotlighted, "distracted doctoring" is a new hot topic in hospitals across the country. Peer-reviewed research has revealed that about half of 439 technicians surveyed who had assisted in cardiopulmonary bypass surgery admitted to having made personal phone calls or texted while a patient was under the knife.
The NTSB, and countless local authorities that have already tried outlawing phoning and texting while walking, biking and driving, may mean well. But people's obsession with their productivity tools has far exceeded government's limited influence and capacity.
We just can't help ourselves! With the world's collected wisdom available at our fingertips and the possibility of a quick virtual hug from a loved one awaiting in the inbox, it's becoming unthinkable to waste that bit of time at a stoplight, during a break in a major surgical procedure, or in between dreams.
Friends, there is no doubt that we are going to multitask, socialize, shop, inform and generally entertain ourselves to death -- if not from a traffic fatality then from the strain of processing torrents of unlimited stimuli every waking moment of the day.
At least boredom won't intrude upon our last breaths. To paraphrase the rock group R.E.M., it's the end of the world as we know it -- and we feel fine.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.