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Originally published Friday, April 19, 2013 at 4:33 PM

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Guest: Smartphones turn dinner parties into strangers at a table

Smartphones have turned two people sitting across from each other into digitized strangers, writes guest columnist Shoshana Wineburg.

Special to The Times

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IF you want to know how technology is changing our lives, ask a waitress. I’ve waited tables on and off at the same Seattle restaurant for the last four years. The restaurant’s hallmark is its consistency. In 31 years, the recipes have never changed.

But in my fourth year, after a stint abroad, something’s changed. It’s not the food. It’s the diners.

When I first started serving, iPhones were new. There were Blackberries, but for the most part, people seemed content with their flip-phones. iPads didn’t even exist. These days, everyone wields a smartphone. They’ve infiltrated my restaurant.

I keep seeing the same thing. Two people sit down for dinner. They exchange pleasantries, order some drinks and pick their entrees. Then ... silence.

Instead of talking to each other, they’re glued to their screens. Two people sitting across from each other like digitized strangers in SimCity rather than humans relating in the real world.

It’s not just smartphones. Last night, a party of four came in and sat in a booth. They laughed over margaritas and dunked chips in guacamole. They seemed to be having a good time.

Then, 15 minutes in, they lost someone. One of the men took out an iPad and set it on the table. He downloaded something and — so as not to bother the others — pulled out his earphones, plugged them into his iPad and proceeded to watch an episode of “Homeland.” Claire Danes was clearly more interesting than the characters at his table.

Long before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented the Apple computer, Henry David Thoreau made a prescient observation:

“Men,” he said, “have become tools to their tools.”

I see this nightly. Technology eats away face time and dilutes connection. Salsa-smeared fingers poke mini keyboards. Eyes scan texts rather than noticing smiles.

Why talk about your partner’s day at work when you can tweet about it online?

I’m no Luddite. I realize technology makes our lives easier and keeps us more informed. But our gadgets are not our friends. You can share a margarita with your friend. Give your iPhone a shot of tequila, and it will die.

Dining at a restaurant is as much about the act of breaking bread in fellowship as it is about the food. There’s something wrong when there’s food and no fellowship.

There’s something wrong when we’re alone even when we’re together.

Technology changes lives. Sometimes it’s for the better. And sometimes — as my gadget-toting, monosyllabic, digitally addicted diners reveal — it’s for the worse.

Shoshana Wineburg graduated from Stanford University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies. She waits tables in Seattle.


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