How to Think about the Cell Phone

Tweet Reddit Share

Weapon of Self-Destruction or Tool of Self-Improvement:

The cell phone. Is it a great thing? A useful thing? An annoying thing? An addicting thing?

A ton of writers have condemned the cell phone on all sorts of grounds. They’re tired of rude talkers who use it in restaurants, parks, and churches, and they’re disgusted by the way cell phones seem to give people a sense of being: “I cell, therefore I am.”

At least one writer, though, decries all this decrying. Jeffrey Tucker, writing at the Ludwig von Mises Institute (http://www.mises.org/story/1849), cogently argued that it’s just more criticism of capitalism, of the Marxist sort. It’s an approach that’s been used repeatedly: Criticize a new technology as an extension of man’s alienation, pepper the essay with quotes from Nietzsche and Freud, and raise the specter of addiction. A few more such jeremiads and the psychiatric profession has a new mental illness to profit from, then maybe the government will get involved with funding.

Tucker also thinks it’s just fear of something new:

“Because our eyes see something new, something we haven’t been socialized to expect, and because the market is expanding and democratizing so rapidly, it creates the illusion of something having gone oddly wrong. Instead of seeking to understand it, the temptation is to reach into pop culture’s bag of ideological bromides and decry it as some sort of pathology.”

These are excellent points.

But he doesn’t address questions that any good disciple of Marshall McLuhan would ask: How does this technology affect the user? What is this need to be in constant touch with everyone, everywhere?

McLuhan said the telephone is a red hot medium. It intensely invokes one sensation: hearing. Being a hot medium, it tends to excite people (when that phone rings, he observed, it’s almost impossible to resist).

Why would someone want that red hot medium in their hip pocket or purse throughout the day? At any moment, that poker could go off and exert intense pressure to drop whatever you’re doing or thinking and answer it. Isn’t such a constant string of distractions, or potential distractions, the opposite state of existence that a recollected person should desire?

In A Guide for the Perplexed, E.F. Schumacher points out that we ordinarily exist in two mental states: captured attention and directed attention. Captured attention is a state of mind in which other things control or influence our mental life. Directed attention is when we tell our mind how to behave. “The difference between directed and captured attention is the same as the difference between doing things and letting things take their course, or between living and ‘being lived.’”

The state of directed attention is higher. It is the state of reading and meditation. The state of captured attention is a lower state: one of TV watching and amusements. It’s the mental state invited by the constant use of the cell phone. This by itself should cause people to distrust the cell phone and put it away at times.

I also question: What does it say about a person that s/he wants to be in a position to talk constantly? It wasn’t long ago that the non-stop talker or gossip was caricatured. Now the non-stop talker is the norm: cell phone on, always ready and willing to gab, gossip, and gush.

It’s the opposite of a spiritual tradition that counsels us to a life of quiet. In his modern classic, The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior extols the virtue of silence:

“Silence is not just the absence of noise any more than peace is the absence of war. It is rather a positive and difficult accomplishment, a state of justice in the soul in which according to the classical formulation stretching back to Plato, each part receives its due in the performance of its proper function.”

The cell phone and its non-stop invitation to noise strike me as the antithesis of the life of detached silence sought by saints and mystics throughout the ages.

I also question the selfishness of the cell phone caller. I can’t tell you how many times a person has called me from his car to “kill time” or to discuss an unimportant matter. He’s driving and has nothing to do, so he’ll bother me. Never mind that I might be trying to work.

And never mind that the connection may prove poor, thus adding a piece of annoyance to my day.

There’s little doubt that the cell phone involves a large measure of selfishness. A lot of “me.”

Yet despite all my concerns with the cell phone, it can’t be denied that all this “me” is infused with a lot of “other.” At the end of his commentary, Tucker writes, “Modern technology has us all talking to each other again. That can’t be a bad thing.”

He’s right. Just a few years ago, we worried about everyone holing up in their cubicles, shut off from the world and hooked up to others only through their computer and e-mail.

Now we’re talking again.

It’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing tainted with problems, but we ought not let the problems overshadow the good, just as we ought not forget that good things can be used for the worse.