Leonard Pitts Jr.: Better connection and a disconnect

BY LEONARD PITTS JR. Published: October 13, 2013
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The thing might be funny, except that somebody died. That part isn't funny at all. But the rest of it, the moments before Justin Valdez was killed, read like some twisted skit on “Saturday Night Live.”

You have to get the picture as captured on surveillance video and described by authorities in a story published last week by the San Francisco Chronicle. You have to see the suspect, 30-year-old Nikhom Thephakaysone, sitting on the light-rail train, pulling out his .45-caliber pistol, pointing it across the aisle, putting it back, pulling it out several times again, and at one point wiping his nose with the hand holding the gun — and nobody notices because they're too busy staring down at their smartphones and tablet computers. We're talking about a train crowded with commuters and this guy is waving a gun around but nobody sees him, so engrossed are they in texting, tweeting and playing Angry Birds.

Finally, according to police, Thephakaysone shot Valdez in the back of the head as the 20-year-old college student was exiting the train. That got people's attention. Indeed, the apparently random Sept. 23 tragedy has rocked the Bay Area. It ought to rock the whole country.

In the murder of Justin Valdez and the bizarre scenario leading up to it, we find fresh, albeit bloody, evidence of how social media and high technology have changed us. These devices and new platforms of communication were supposed to allow us to be better connected to one another. Take this murder as Exhibit A for the argument that they actually do the opposite.

Granted, they provide a link to someone who is not there, but it is at the cost of separation from someone who is. Next time you're on a plane waiting for takeoff, next time you're on public transit, next time you're in a restaurant, count all the eyes fixed to all the screens, all the ears stuffed with tiny white buds, all the spaces that once would have been filled with casual conversation and eye contact, now filled by the silence of people who are not there, people who occupy the same place at the same time worlds apart.

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