I'm not sure if "insular" is the correct word. Perhaps "rude", "oblivious", or "self-centered" might be closer to the mark.
Of course there are occasions when a cell phone is an invaluable tool - in cases of accidents, emergencies, and when there is no other way to reach and reassure people of your whereabouts if you are not where you are expected as quickly as anticipated.
However people increasingly use cell phones in public out of boredom and in indifference to the people in front of their faces. Do you cringe when you see someone at the counter of a convenience store, blabbing into their cell phone, not even bothering to make eye contact with the store clerk? How about the incident columnist Ellen Goodman described in the paper today: "[talking incessantly on one's cell phone] . . . has cut down the number of small personal encounters that make strangers feel as if they inhabit the same world. It may not be a safety hazard to talk to one person while ordering coffee from another, but what was the woman's message to her hairstylist when she talked on the phone while he cut her hair? You're invisible?"
Whether meant or not, insulating behavior like this sends the message that, not only doesn't the person we're dealing with on a one-on-one basis matter as much as the person on the phone, we don't care about meeting anybody new or interacting with the outside world except to "get" things from it. Why do we need to make personal contact with others when the buddies we've got are only a cell phone call away? Or if we can sit in our offices and order everything we need online?
There are two other behaviors I find disturbing. It's one thing if a person goes out jogging with a headset and the music turned up. I don't understand why folks do it, since it blocks traffic noise and the warnings they might provide but also distracts from whatever natural beauty might be there all around the jogger which -- I've always assumed -- is the reason they are outside rather than running on a treadmill in a health club. BUT at least jogging is a solo activity and shutting the world out with a headset while running down the road impacts nobody but the jogger.
It's a different story - and a sad sight - to watch young kids on the bus. If you ride Tri-Met home from downtown Portland, as I do, you will often find yourself sitting on the bus with a lot of school kids. One by one, some get on the bus with their headphones in place, sit silently in their seats with their ears plugged and eyes forward, shutting out the rest of humanity in the bus. These aren't even the older kids - the ones you'd expect would be going through a sullen and rebellious age (I know I did); they're grade schoolers. Thankfully there are still kids who talk to each other and to strangers; they have the most wonderful conversations and are so full of energy it makes you glad just to be sitting near to them. Most of these active, interacting kids are either black or Latino/Latina; most of the headset bunch are white.
Finally, others have spoken of the isolation created by single commuters barrelling down the road with a cell phone at their ear or their ears covered by a headset. Now, unlike even a few years ago, they sit higher off the road in their SUVs and have a myriad of toys to play with -- navigation prompts, CD players, dashboard television, etc. etc. Years ago when I commuted to work by bicycle, I could always make eye contact with drivers - both for safety's sake, so they'd see me, and just to be friendly. Try that now.
I don't like to see us lose opportunities for community in little ways like this. But I wonder if these people even realize what they are sacrificing by remaining "An army of one" and saying to the world that nobody matters but my family, the folks I talk to on my cell phone, my music, and me.
Is this becoming The American Way?