The Lost Art of Staring Into SpaceElizabeth Benedict "Which do you prefer -- sex or a pastrami sandwich?" one guy asks another, though it's not a proposition but a light-hearted survey. "To tell you the truth," the other guy says, "sometimes the sandwich." This exchange is lodged in my memory, overheard a dozen years ago at a restaurant.

It reminds me of a scene from last Sunday at the Buttercup Bake Shop near my apartment, a heartbreaking power struggle involving competing temptations: technology, love and sugar. I watched a girl, about 10 years old, eat a cupcake and try to get her mother's attention, but Mom had eyes and fingers only for her iPhone. There was no evidence she'd even eaten a cupcake. She scrolled through emails for the entire time I sat next to them, 20 minutes. iPhone 1 - Cupcake 0. iPhone 1 - Daughter 0.

It made me sad to see the girl looking so bereft -- and stuffing her face with mounds of sugar while Addict Mommie's eyes bored into the screen affixed to her palm. And sadder still because I had just finished Susan Maushart's terrific book about this very problem -- our screen fixation and what it does to family life. The title says more than most do: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to the Tell the Tale.

It's one of a number of smart new books that examines the down sides of our brave new world. Evgeny Morozov's Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom argues that the Internet does not have a liberal, pro-democracy bias, and that repressive governments use it more than we know to further their nefarious aims. MIT professor Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other is another title that says a great deal about where we are - and where we might be headed.

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