I was at a restaurant the other day when I saw a curious thing. There were 10 or 12 youngish men and women sitting at a table, each with a phone in front of his or her face.

Clicking the buttons, scrolling the pages, sending clever emoticons out into the cyber universe. Click, click, click, scroll, scroll, scroll.

This went on for a solid hour. There was barely any spoken conversation at that table, beyond an occasional murmur or grunt to the wait staff. The question was obvious: If you’re sitting in tight quarters with your closest pals, then who are you chatting with on that palm-sized portal to the social underworld?

An unsettling thought occurred to me: Maybe they were chatting with each other.

Cue “Twilight Zone” theme here.

OK, now cut “Twilight Zone” theme. It’s annoying.

Every pundit to ever pick up a pencil these days has aired his thoughts on the smartphone phenomenon. But can you blame them? The ubiquity of the gadgets is striking. In any given place at any given time you will see:

• A 3-year-old kid who hasn’t yet learned to tie his shoelaces has nonetheless mastered the interface of the Samsung Tab S2. Why not? That’s where the action is. You’ll see this kid sitting slumped in the back of his mom’s minivan while the swings and slides of the playground outside go uninhabited. Smartphones and tablets have taken on the role of baby sitters who never go away.

• Inside any department store, a mom and her teenage daughter slowly ambling up the aisles like well-dressed zombies, are each staring with mute obedience at the device in her hand. If you look really close at their eyes, you will see the cartoon spirals of a hypnotic state where once existed pupils and irises.

• Outside the store, ambling up the center of a lane, a woman gawps at her phone while absently pushing the cart that contains her pocketbook, her kid and a pile of loot from the store. Not once does this woman look ahead of her. Or behind her. Or to the left or right where the real world of live people and human souls exists. To me it is a marvel that police aren’t called to handle five kidnappings, half a dozen purse snatchings and 10 reports of people walking into poles (or open manholes) per day.

• At stoplights everywhere, men and women so entranced by the miniaturized worlds within their phones fail to notice that the lights have gone from red to green. Forget the great lollipop question, How many angry honks does it take to snap a phone drone out of his stupefaction at the corner of East and Sabattus?

• On the sidewalks, women push strollers or men walk hand in hand with children. The kids might be chattering nonstop about the wonders around them, but does Pa have time for any of that? No, man. Not when he’s scrolling Facebook to see how many likes his latest witticism received.

• At any baseball game, movie or concert, a good number of people spend more time talking, texting or posting on their phones than on watching the event itself.

It’s not enough that these cyber drones have lost the capacity for live social interaction — not to mention situational awareness — but they also surrender with glee every fine detail of their private lives. Where they go, who they go with, what they buy and how they buy it. Everything from tasteful nude selfies to banking information is handed over to the nebulous galaxy of the web behind that shiny phone screen.

If George Orwell himself were to rise from the grave, upon seeing the phone-in-every-hand reality of our times, he would slap his own forehead with rueful hindsight. In the world of Orwell’s “1984” the simple two-way telescreen in every home was the symbol of privacy’s destruction. Even this great seer could not imagine a time when the population would grow so complacent, they would voluntarily — nay, eagerly — carry that telescreen everywhere they went.

Then old George would be bumped into by the fifth drooling phone enthusiast of the day and he’d insist on being flung back into the ground and buried as quickly as possible.

And this rampant obsession seems to span all demographics. It’s not a young thing, a girl thing, a snob thing or an uneducated thing. These easily toted gadgets offer way too much to be resisted for long. What can the small physical space in our immediate vicinity possibly offer to compete with the dimensions of infinite variety cupped within our hands? The mom, brother or best friend sitting at your elbow is an insignificant bore compared to the hilarity of Vines, the unpredictability of Facebook and the ego-stroking nature of Instagram.

So, while I was pondering the weird absence of live interaction at the restaurant, there was a woman of about 65 seated to my left.

“Isn’t it weird,” I said, leaning toward her, “how everyone at that table seems to be …”

But I was too late. Before I could engage the woman in conversation, she pulled a tablet out of her purse and began scrolling her way into the oblivion of the online realm.

Sighing, I sat back and pulled my own battered phone from my pocket. When in Rome, I guess. I started poking and scrolling and page-flipping, searching for whatever grand secrets has so entranced the rest of the population.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can find him on Facebook at any time of the day or night.

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