This will not be another philippic against cell phones, for they are here to stay--their pesky mosquito buzz a permanent part of our environment--and any writer attempting to stem the tide might as well try to topple the Himalayas by pitching a handful of mush.

As I see it, however, the cell phone is only symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Some far-off historian, looking back at the last few years of the 20th century, may well conclude that this was the Age of Distraction--an era in which we were exposed to so many extraneous interruptions that we had to fight consciously to follow a sustained thought.

Example: We all know what it is like to call a large company, and then be put on hold with the assurance that our call is "very important." Lately, however, this obnoxious practice has grown even more sinister. Now the custom is to intersperse speech with music, so that we might hear a snatch of the Pachelbel Canon, followed immediately by some recorded advertisement, followed immediately (and grotesquely) by a snippet from the Mozart 40th Symphony. We tune in, we tune out, we tune in again--channel-surfing in our brains--and our senses are slowly deadened as we bounce back and forth between stimuli.

Another example: The Chicago Hilton and Towers, that wonderful old battleship of an establishment on Michigan Avenue, seems so fearful of giving its clientele a moment's pause for reflection that it has installed little television sets in its elevators, all tuned to CNN, so that we can keep up with the news as we ascend to our rooms.

Back in New York, you no sooner step into a cab than a celebrity voice booms out behind you, passing on the grandiose Giuliani myth that you're "driving in the greatest city in the world" before throwing in a wisecrack and commanding you to buckle your seat belt. The "celebrities" all seem to have been chosen from that curious roster of "only in New York" characters--among others, Jackie Mason, Sally Jessy Raphael and the dread Dr. Ruth. ("I'm afraid I'm not acquainted with her work," sniffed an English friend.)

Then there are the bars and taverns throughout the land, places that used to be conducive to good conversation or, at the very least, a sentimental meditation over a pint of lager. Even these are now threatened: I recently fell into a place in Cleveland that had eight silent television screens flashing everything from sporting matches to the latest stock quotes. Who could think?

There was a time when strangers could insert their personal opinions into your consciousness either through direct conversation or through the relatively benign, easily ignored lapel button or bumper sticker--"I {heart} my dog," "I {spade} my cat," "I {club} my baby seal." But now, with or without your permission, you can be added to anybody's automatic e-mail list, and the bilge--and further distraction--will arrive daily.

I don't want to seem hypocritical. I use e-mail (although I zealously guard my address); I am grateful for the convenience of telephone call waiting (the busy signal is--or should be--a thing of the past); and I am glad to own a computer. But these conveniences can prove seductive traps.

And any escape is increasingly cut off. I wonder about my children--will they ever know what it was like to sit through an Ingmar Bergman double feature without interruption? Those long afternoons enriched me beyond expression--surrenders to one of the century's greatest artists as he cast his monumental shadows on the screen. In most of his best motion pictures, Bergman didn't even use color film. A budgetary concern? Perhaps, in part. But I like to think that a different sort of economy--economy of artistic means--may have played into the decision as well.

Today, unless we are very lucky or very rich, the closest approximation we can make to those Bergman afternoons of yore is to rent the tapes and pop them into the video player. There's something to be said for this (after all, we couldn't see anything we wanted every day when we were at the mercy of a revival-house schedule). But "Wild Strawberries" or "Winter Light" lose their power when watched on television, amid ringing telephones, barking dogs and the general tumult of a busy living quarter.

It is estimated that the average American now watches seven hours of television every day. But people aren't really watching most of the time; the machine is simply on. Indeed, I have friends who are now incapable of following even a half-hour program through from start to finish. Instead, they must ride the remote control--a little of this, a little of that, anything to fill up the time, anything, it seems, to keep from concentrated thought.

One of the great joys of the Amtrak Metroliner used to be the ability to slide into your seat with an engrossing book, and then read quietly as the cities slid by. Nowadays, you are barely out of the station when you will hear a little squeal and--nine times out of 10--the person behind you will begin carrying on a one-sided conversation, talking in a preternaturally loud, self-conscious voice, almost always about money or business.

Perhaps Amtrak, which offered smoking and nonsmoking accommodations for so many years, might start offering cellular-free railway cars. That way, those who insist upon buying and selling in public could work in their own little bazaar and leave the rest of the train to some civility.

Meanwhile, those who feel as I do might practice some spiritual stretching exercises--making plans to check our e-mail only once a day (subject to occasional revision, of course), limiting our number of phone lines (and the hours during which we will answer calls), reading longer and more nourishing books and spending time in quiet, restorative places conducive to meandering and unstimulated thought. Maybe then we can live as human beings again, rather than as exhausted machines caught up in the detritus of the urgent moment.