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A day for independence from iPhones?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Jackie Quintero checks out a new Apple iPhone 4 as she waits in line to buy her own on June 23 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Jackie Quintero checks out a new Apple iPhone 4 as she waits in line to buy her own on June 23 in Miami Beach, Florida.
  • People have developed a huge dependence on their cell phones, Bob Greene says
  • The screens that we yearn to possess have instead begun to possess us, he says
  • He says people seemed to get along quite well in days before screens invaded our lives
  • Today's a day to see the real world, not just the one we see on our screens, Greene says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- It's the Fourth of July, and you're gazing up toward the sky in anticipation of glorious fireworks; you're happily looking at a festive Independence Day parade; you're peering toward the grill, where hot dogs are sizzling ...

Oh. Wait. No, you're not.

You're looking at this screen instead.

And we thank you for that. But once in a while, it might be beneficial for all of us to take a few steps back and consider just how thoroughly the multiple screens we own have insinuated their way into our lives. We should ponder how what happens on the screens has begun to push aside and supersede the things that go on in the actual, nondigital world that surrounds us.

You undoubtedly are aware that Apple's iPhone 4 caused a frenzy when it went on sale late last month. Frenzies, by their nature, are supposed to be spontaneous, but iPhone frenzies have become so predictable that you can mark their dates on your calendar.

Lines formed around the block in some cities; potential customers camped out. They were not hungry souls desperate for a scrap of food; they were not plaintive refugees hoping for a cup of water.

They weren't even people who were without phones. They just wanted newer phones with cooler screens. The grousing began before the official on-sale date of June 24; people were pouting that there were foul-ups in the procedures that were supposed to permit pre-orders.

One would-be customer in Manhattan told New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham that the situation was "a complete disaster." He said of the possible delay in getting his new phone: "It's inexcusable. I might get it on the 24th, 25th or even the next week. Who knows?"

Apple ended up selling 1.7 million of the phones in the first three days alone. (There were complaints that a flaw in the design of the phone hampered its performance; already there is talk of class-action lawsuits. Yes: Apparently, unhappy Americans are about to sue their telephones.)

We seem to be nearing some sort of critical mass. The screens we yearn to possess have instead begun to possess us. Walk down any city street. Observe your fellow pedestrians, all but oblivious to their immediate surroundings, fixated instead on the screens they hold in their palms. They smile, as if at a human being; they tap away at the tiny keyboard. If they are fortunate, they do not walk into a lamp pole.

Is this an addiction, or merely the result of ruthlessly efficient marketing? Perhaps it is both.

You may have had this experience: You leave your home to go to dinner. Once you arrive at the restaurant, you realize, with a start, that you have forgotten to bring your phone with you.

(When the first cell phones were introduced -- the rudimentary ones that just made and received calls -- some restaurants prohibited their use, out of respect for the diners they assumed would be bothered. At least one New York restaurant made customers check their phones at the door, like gunslingers with their six-shooters in an old Western town. That battle has pretty much been lost.)

Anyway ... you have arrived at the restaurant. You are inadvertently phoneless, screenless. And you notice that you are vaguely jittery. You feel untethered. You briefly consider leaving the establishment to go home and retrieve the phone. You are only going to be away from it for two hours, tops. Yet you are going through classic withdrawal.

At times like those, it is useful to remember that we all seemed to get along pretty well in the days before the screens invaded our lives.

We navigated life rather efficiently when we knew that once we left the house, no one would be able to reach us until we came back. We did not require ceaseless digital bombardment, and we probably would have rejected it had it been offered to us, like a first free taste of heroin. We managed to be our own search engines.

Earlier this year, I was watching a college hockey game on television. The director of the telecast cut to a shot of the star of the team's mother, who was sitting in the stands. The network had the onscreen graphic ready to identify her; the idea was to show her proudly watching her son play in the big game.

So they cut to her, and she was staring straight down, deep in concentration, not looking at the game. Her thumbs were moving; she was reading and sending text messages.

On this Independence Day, dare we declare our at least partial independence from the screens that were meant to serve us, but have begun to rule us? It's doubtful that many of us even want to. But here is a closing thought, about the 3-D capabilities that are reputedly on their way to our screens.

They are said to be astonishingly lifelike, full of depth and clarity and definition that pops right out at us. The three-dimensional effects, we are told, will be mesmerizing.

Would you like to be mesmerized right now? Would you like to see 3-D that will take your breath away?

Look away from this screen.

Look around you, out the window or across the room or down the street.

Isn't it something? It looks so real, you half-believe you can touch it.

No pre-orders necessary.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.