Can you remember life before cell phones?
A time when if you wanted to get in touch with someone, you had to leave a message, and (gasp!) wait until they returned home to call you back?
A time before digital contact lists, when you memorized your friend’s phone numbers?
A time when if you planned to meet someone at a specific time and they were late, you’d just have to hang around until they got there?
A time when you might have sat for a moment in silence, read a book without interruption, or chatted with someone nearby, instead of constantly grabbing for your phone to send a text or check e-mail?
It’s hard to imagine, but just give it a try: can you remember life before you had a device with you, at all times, everywhere you go?
Today’s post is about the gadget that has wormed its way into the life of over 80% of American’s lives, and explores what it’s like to live in a world where quiet, un-connected moments are few and far between, increasingly replaced by the twitter of texts and cell phone chatter. Guest poster SCU student Chris Kelly explores this everpresent issue in his article Smartphones Distract From Reality, writing that cell phones are “changing the way we think about free time.” Chris’s article, ahead.
Chris Kelly is an English major and a Senior at Santa Clara University. This post is adapted from his article, “Smartphones Distract From Reality“, which originally appeared in SCU’s newspaper The Santa Clara. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Smartphones Distract From Reality
It’s annoying, but I find myself doing it. No, it’s not sleeping through the alarm clock or spilling instant oatmeal on my shirt in the morning. It’s that five-minute filler, that substitute for silence.
As far as I am concerned, iPhones and other products of the like are now cooler than neon spandex was in the 1980s or Kanye West’s music is to the current white middle class. I do not personally own an iPhone or Blackberry, but that does not keep me from participating in useless phone conversations in order to kill time. With or without high-tech cell phones, kids, parents, businessmen, the people who steam your lattes and yes, the rest of the world, are changing the way we think about free time.Modern society is slowly eliminating what we often define as peacefulness, only to replace it with unnecessary, superficial conversation and web surfing.
A college campus, office building or busy city street are perfect locations to witness firsthand how modern society is slowly eliminating what we often define as peacefulness, only to replace it with unnecessary, superficial conversation and web surfing.
How often do you overhear someone on the phone orating something along the lines of “O hey, watcha doin? Nothing? O, me either,” while you, by yourself, are walking peacefully? Tranquility, apparently, has lost its stock value, while looking like Ari Gold from Entourage and keeping extremely busy has broken the glass ceiling of coolness.
While normal texts and conversations are socially acceptable, tethered technologies, such as the Blackberry and iPhone, are the power tools that are constructing the barrier between ourselves and the traditional daily events to which we are accustomed, such as face to face conversation and, more importantly, paying attention to our superiors during college classes and office meetings, instead of the YouTube shenanigans playing on our hand-held screens.
According to Apple, over 16 million Americans owned an iPhone as of last June. I cannot imagine that the Blackberry is very far behind, and I can guarantee that Santa Clara University represents a couple thousand of those in active use and another couple hundred that are now broken from using them incidentally as coasters, bottle openers and napkins. In any case, they are being used as much as 15-cent ramen packets are used in my kitchen.
The infatuation with these phones is not difficult to understand. There are certain tools and games that are simply addictive. How about those crafty widgets? They are the solution to avoiding that moral obligation we call responsibility or using that difficult thing we call a memory. Can’t spell? No problem. Don’t want a real hamster? Put a digital one on your phone, name him Lemmingwinks and feed him when you feel like it; he will not die if your phone runs out of battery.
Maybe, if we are lucky, we will whimsically fall back into the Dark Ages and barbarians will come burn all our books and sack our cities while we drink mead and reinvent the feudal system.
There are, however, plenty of advantages to these dangerous technologies. For example, the new Apple “bump widget,” which allows you to physically bump your iPhone against another iPhone and exchange contact information.
So next time you are walking by yourself to the library or to your favorite sandwhich shop, instead of screaming out “my friend likes you!” when you see that beautiful girl carrying an iPhone, you can just bump into her and say “Oh, hey, look at that, I got your number, we might as well make this work.”
My personal favorite widget was created by Jordan Palmer (no, not Carson Palmer, his brother). It’s called Run and Pee, a comprehensive list of convenient times to visit the bathroom while watching a movie at the theatre.
Though the program has yet to be officially approved by Apple, I have approved it as totally hilarious and totally necessary for those who order a liter of cola at the concession stand.
So should we continue to embrace these technologies with eager fingers? Maybe, but the next time you find yourself walking to wherever it is that you walk, creeped out by the tranquility that surrounds you, just remember that it’s natural, even healthy, and at the end of the day remember: no one really likes Ari Gold.
I think Chris is spot on that people are increasingly “creeped out” by tranquility; everywhere you look, people are glued to their cell phones, and it has become harder and harder to just sit in silence for a few minutes without feeling the urge to check your phone, send a quick message, or search through your phone mindlessly until the period of waiting is over. Haven’t we all had the experience of waiting for a friend to show up or for a class to start, when we pull out our cell phone and start messaging someone, simply because it feels awkward just sitting there? Tranquility, as Chris says, has lost its stock value: cell phones have bred a culture where it is simply uncomfortable to sit alone without being (or even just looking) busy. Moments of downtime that perhaps used to be time for quiet thought or a casual conversation with someone nearby are now filled to the brim with ‘texts’ and ‘widgets’ — it seems there’s not a moment that goes by now that can’t be occupied by this tethered technological gadget.
Chris’s article also brings to mind a few interesting points about our “cell phone society”, about the way cell phones have affected communal spaces and how they have changed how we interact with one another. His comment that cell phones “are constructing the barrier between ourselves and the traditional daily events to which we are accustomed” reminds me of an article by Christine Rosen called, “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves,” in which she writes that cell phones have led to a “radical disengagement in the public sphere” wherein people sacrifice not only etiquette, but also engagement in the world around them as a result of being so cell-phone centric. Standing in lines at the supermarket chatting away, sitting in coffee shops hooked into our text messages, conducting conversations in person while checking our phones every other minute: cell phones have caused us to become “absently present”— physically in a place but mentally absent, off in another world preoccupied by our phones.
This “absent presence” is all too common on college campuses, as Chris writes, where students are glued to their cell phones, chatting or texting, paying attention to their miniature screens instead of what is actually going on around them. It can be almost comical to observe “absent presence” in the classroom, where rows of students are eagerly texting away on their cell phones before, after, and during breaks in classes, often at the expense of talking to their peers sitting right next to them. Indeed, everyone in the room is having a conversation: however, it’s not with each other, but with the network of people they are connected to on their phones. What effect does this have on classroom dynamics? On how a community functions as a whole? Psychologist Kenneth Gergen thinks that this erosion of face-to-face community is a moral failing; Rosen adds, “It would be a terrible irony if “being connected” required or encouraged a disconnection from community life — an erosion of the spontaneous encounters and everyday decencies that make society both civilized and tolerable.” Is there merit to Gergen and Rosen’s point? Are our cell phone habits harmless time fillers, or are they actually contributing to the degradation of community life?
It may seem like no big deal to whip out your cell phone during these periods of “downtime” in your day…but it is interesting to consider the opportunity cost of these moments that are now busied by “superficial conversations and websurfing”–moments when we used to be able to let our minds wander, or might have struck up a conversation with an actual person nearby. When you think about life before cell phones, are there aspects of it that you think would be wise to regain? In being so technologically connected, what other connections are we losing as a result?
Have cell phones changed the way you experience “downtime” throughout your day? Have you ever tried to go “cell-phone-less” and if so, what effect did it have on what you thought about or did when you would have otherwise been on your phone?
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