01 January 2008|
Symposium: Cell Phones
Modern convenience or social scourge?
Cell phones are the Imperial rulers over the modern existence. I know because I own one; well, it owns me.
The worst aspect of the cell phone is its uncanny ability to remove a person from living and enjoying in the moment. Imagine this scenario. It's a Wednesday night and you're having dinner at your favorite restaurant with your significant other. The two of you are engrossed in conversation, thoroughly enjoying each other's company when suddenly a violent eruption occurs. Nasty vibrations are rattling in your girlfriend's purse. She opens her purse to reveal an LED-infested, vibrating pocket mood-killer. She rushes to turn off the screaming golem of light, but alas the moment has passed. "Sorry, what were you talking about again?"
Britain's oldest worker agrees with me here: "I have never in my life owned a phone -- they are a bloody nuisance," he said. "You can be sitting peacefully indoors and they start ringing. I hate them."
This old limey is exactly right. Having a cellphone is like having your home phone with you all the time, except the tele-marketers are people you actually know, so its harder to get rid of them in times when you just want peace (read: all the time). Hey, 100 years and 17 children is pretty good for a guy that couldn't use a cellphone to ring up his booty call.
Instead of 'keeping you connected' as the advertisements claim, cellphones do just the opposite. They limit you to the people on your address book. How many people on your address book do you actually speak to more than once a week? Ten percent, at the most? People are just talking to the same old friends and relatives, day in and day out. No new connections are ever made on a phone; they are made with real, face-to-face chat. The cellphone hinders you from making new friends because it gives your current friends a stranglehold on your attention.
I remember when I was in college walking into a huge lecture hall with my fellow Anteaters. Everyone near me was on their cellphones. Even when they were trying to find their seat, my peers were still on their cellphones. Unquestionably, during lecture at least two cellphones would go off, interrupting class and breaking the professor's rhythm. Finally, after lecture (and the cellphone barrage) was over, everyone immediately grabbed their cellphones again to talk to the same invisible friends they were speaking with before class started. At no point during this process did my cellphone-wielding peers attempt to acknowledge their fellow students. It's like the cellphone provides an all too convenient disconnect from the world. Why socialize with strangers when I can talk to people I already know?! Of course the conversations were never about anything of import: the usual boys, parties, or "how come you didn't respond to my text?"
We switch off our cellphones during movies because to be distracted from the film would mean we are wasting the price of our ticket, so why do leave our cellphone on during our life? Surely real life is more important than a movie? But for most cellphone users, it isn't. The cellphone is a means of escaping reality, it is the Almighty TV game show host constantly asking you to "make a deal" with your time. If you don't like what you're doing right now, just wait a couple minutes and that glorious cellphone will ring, offering you another opportunity to do something else you don't want to do - just in a different location.
In the corporate world, it has gotten to the point where turning your cellphone off when talking to a client is more than just common courtesy, it's actually a display of utmost respect. Please. If my time isn't valued, give me the common courtesy to tell me so I can just get up and leave.
The corporate Blackberry is an even bigger joke. If a company ever offers you a 'free' Blackberry, reject it. Better yet, throw it back in your boss's face and tell him you don't like working weekends. Ever wonder why companies are springing for these seemingly exorbitantly expensive cellphones? It's all an elaborate trap. With a Blackberry you suddenly have the ability to check your e-mail at all hours of the day, any day. You are now expected to respond to all e-mails in a timely (timely, as in right now) manner. You are a slave to your cellphone and to the whims of others.
Is this the definition of the "Information Age?" In the immortal words of Neil Young, "Take this cellphone and shove it." (Or something like that).
Your hypothetical and circumstantial rant against cell phones can be divided into three points, all equally lacking probative weight:
1. The ringing of a cell phone distracts from various important life activities, and is annoying.
Very well. So turn it off when you don't want to be disturbed. How is it the fault of your telephone that you can't press your finger to its power button when you have deemed your current situation socially important? Perhaps your girlfriend, in your awkward date example, is looking for a way out. Why blame the cell phone for your lack of suave demeanor to snare her undivided attention?
My girlfriend, for what it's worth, doesn't answer her phone when we're together in such situations. I love her, but perhaps I should love her more for her preternatural ability to resist the charms of the evil snake-charming distraction that is the cellular telephone?
2. Many people don't initiate social contacts through their cell phone.
a) The failure to actively create new social contacts doesn't render an object of technology inappropriate. I don't meet people through my computer. Should I take my PowerBook and shove it as well?
b) Many people do interact with new people on their cell phone, as could anyone who put forth the effort to do so. The process goes like this. "Hi, it's nice to meet you. Let me have your number so we can talk and plan a face-to-face meeting." Again, the fault lies with your fellow Anteaters who can't deign to speak to their fellow classmates, not the cell phone they lazily yak into instead.
c) Nowhere is it claimed that the main advantage of cell phones is that they initiate new social contacts. Rather, they facilitate connections between those you already know and wish to contact. I'll expand on this point later.
d) Reverting to Point 1, it is a simple task to turn one's cell phone off and speak in the traditional in personam manner you so glorify. You unfortunately blame the cell phone (an inanimate object) for the inability of certain social excluders to maintain meaningful human interaction. This is both logically fallacious and contrary to this organization's stated ideals of personal responsibility.
3. Some people use cell phones as an escape.
I perhaps may have missed the bulletin establishing the cellular telephone as the first recorded example of a potentially socially-stratifying technology. Opponents to the Interstate Highway System (ever seen the movie Cars?) claimed that new-fangled superhighways would (and did) distract from the traditional local-town social circle. Opponents of television have assiduously claimed ever since its invention that TV has destroyed families, corrupted morals and reduced meaningful social interaction. Do I even need to mention the varied hysterical critiques of the modern personal computer? I'm sure I don't need to cite to you, Mr. Computer Science major, how many young computer addicts have ruined their social lives with an excessive devotion to the silicon invention.
Should we ban highways, televisions, and computers? Shove all of them, per Mr. Young's request? Socially banish these imperial rulers of our social existence? According to your reasoning, we should. Fortunately, these examples serve to illuminate the errors in your reasoning, which hopefully you will seasonably repudiate.
Emanicpation is desirable, my friend, but only when one is actually enslaved. Any logical value to your points requires we abandon the reality that individuals have free choice, can control their behavior, and should act responsibly. If your cell phone truly owns you, you exemplify little character. You let a 3-inch plastic box own you?
When I buy myself a Blackberry, I will use it judiciously, as I use all of the technology in my life judiciously, in a way to enhance and not interfere with my social and personal desires. For all of your rhetoric about rugged individualism, you'd think you'd recognize the possibility of doing this.
The potential ills of cell phones you cite are indeed real, just like the potential ills of TVs, computers, and everything else. But the disadvantages you cite are all easily reparable by volitional action and are additionally clearly inferior in relevance to the many advantages to cell phones, which I will now adduce.
As many communication problems as cell phones have created, many more they solve. Emergencies are the biggest and most obvious example. The reason people leave cell phones on, despite potential social distractions, is because their loved ones wish to be able to contact them immediately in a state of emergency. Emergencies take a variety of forms - social, physical, and personal - too numerous and obvious to discuss here. The parties in states of emergencies vary, including families, friends, and businesspeople. The advantage that the technology gives - the ability to make a contact with an important person nearly instantaneously - obliterates the sporadic disadvantages exemplified by the few social miscreants and bored girlfriends you sloppily cite.
I'm sure you'll appreciate the social consciousness of your friends who have "shoved their cellphones" when your 1984 Porsche breaks down in West Adams and you need a ride. Don't worry, I'm sure they'll be happy to help you once you ask them in a face-to-face meeting. Oh, wait, that's impossible...
The second advantage of cell phones is a monetary point. The cost of long-distance has plummeted thanks to cellphones, saving valuable money for bicoastal families and college students, among many others.
But it's not only Americans who benefit. The rapid price fall of cell phones has accelerated their use in the Third World, where citizens who lack traditional communication infrastructure can easily communicate with each other, thanks to those Imperial Rulers of Modern Existence. Cellular technology allows them to effectively run commerce, communicate with their families, and generally improve their lifestyle through enhanced communication. If you don't believe the extent to which cell phones are helping to transform the fortunes of the developing world, pick up an issue of The Economist. You will quickly regret your position.
The factor that distinguishes the foolishness of your argument is a central tenet to nearly all debates over the benefit of technology: free choice. You would deny convenient contact between families, friends, lovers and entrepreneurs, risk safety, increase peril in emergencies, and deny the Third World an indispensible technology merely because you have observed some spoiled, reclusive Rich World brats who misuse their freedom of choice? Is this America, or is this a Soviet thought experiment?
The difference is that every single instance you mention of "bad" cell phone use can be ameliorated by the simple act of turning the goddam thing off. Imperial Rulers of Modern Existence, unlike Imperial Rulers of Imperial Existence, come with power buttons. Use them.
But the grief-striken mother wondering where her child is, the motorist stranded on the side of the road, the girlfriend wishing to express her love to her geographically-removed boyfriend, the businessman closing deals on the go, and the sub-Saharan African without a phone line or automobile don't have such luxuries. They need a cell phone because it is the only thing which provides the convenience, security, and enhanced communication they seek. How dare you claim that the lazy and overprivileged should deny them the opportunity and convenience that technology grants.