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Tech Industry

A rough introduction to Gadgetman 2013

A flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas for CES 2013 shows just how extreme some gadget-obsessions have become -- at the expense of human basics.

Can you tear yourself away when you cough? Josh Lowensohn/CNET

LAS VEGAS--I was sitting in my window seat ready to fly out to CES 2013 when something large and soft landed in my lap.

It was a bingo wing.

A floppy human tricep had somehow bounced onto me without so much as an "Excuse me."

It belonged to a man who was possessed of a bumpered iPhone, a protected iPad and the uncovered manners of a drunken Gollum.

Yes, this was my seat mate, and he'd stumbled a little as he tried to sit. He was holding two gadgets, you see.

Seat mates are like lovers. You can't choose them. They just happen to you.

Yet this one had a commitment to his gadgets that was as physically fierce as it was emotionally.

He stabbed his iPhone with his index finger as there were messages to be sent. When that had to be switched off, he plugged his earphones past his lobes and began to stab equally furiously at the three buttons of the Virgin in-flight entertainment system.

It seemed to be working fine, but he behaved with the sort of aggression that was far too real for WWE. Had these buttons been eyes, they would have been gouged straight out.

A few minutes after takeoff, the announcement came that electronic devices could now be switched on. He leaped for his iPad, opened it up and stabbed his way to the New York Times, all the while still watching the in-flight screen too.

Then he yawned.

This wasn't a gentle yawn. This was the yawn of a rhinoceros with narcolepsy. I've heard trains that were quieter.

Perhaps I was brought up in a different ghetto from you, but my mom always told me to cover my mouth while yawning.

However, Gadgetman (who was, indeed, on his way to CES) was holding his iPad with his right hand, and scrolling with his left. He was bathed in a moral dilemma. He resolved it quickly. He carried right on.

Then he began to cough.

When you yawn, a certain amount of your oral fluid emerges. When you cough, there is more.

Yet his coughing etiquette was the same as his yawning etiquette. Or his seating etiquette, for that matter.

The hands are made for gadgets. If they're full of gadgets, they cannot be expected to observe ancient niceties.

You might imagine that I, or the woman seated the other side, might have said something after a while.

All I can say is that I was numbed with disbelief. Perhaps because of a European upbringing, I thought I'd first offer him a scowl. People usually know when they're being stared at.

Gadgetman initially did not. However, after a couple of stares he got some of the message, because he then opened up his tray table and stood the iPad on it. Yet his hands -- all of him -- couldn't break their habit. He kept his right hand on the iPad and scrolled with his left.

Then the drinks came and he tore his right hand away to hold his water bottle. But only briefly.

Occasionally, he would look up at the rerun of a San Francisco Giants documentary he was watching on the screen, and then he'd look straight back down.

In the 75 minutes of the flight, he must have coughed 16 times and yawned 60.

Not once did the hand cover the mouth.

Until, that is, a few minutes before landing. He had to be told three times by two different cabin crew members to turn off his iPad.

He leaned forward to put the iPad away in the seat pocket in front. As he came back up, he coughed very loud.

With no gadget to clutch, he demurely put his hand over his mouth as he did.

He clearly knew the form. He just had his own form of prioritizing. Gadgets first, people next.

This is, perhaps, the way that a significant proportion of attendees at CES 2013 (and other humans) might think. They love gadgets, so they create gadgets for people who love gadgets.

They don't think how this might alter behavior. Why should they? They're in love. Their own kind of love.

Of course, this Gadgetman was an extreme. I hope. But he was hooked more fiercely than most addicts I've ever seen.

The wheels hadn't touched the ground before he removed his iPhone again and renewed his finger-based assault.

He offered another rasping cough.

Suddenly, my right forearm, neatly tucked on the inside of my lap, was wet.

He didn't look up.