For Christmas last year, I was given a cell-phone (a “mobile phone”, in European terms). I’d always resisted buying one for a couple of reasons.
First off, I’m already too accessible, as are most of us. The poet, Rumi, once said: “I have lived too long where I can be reached!” Wonderfully put. We can no longer go out for dinner, have a family outing, take a day off, or go on vacation without life intruding back in on us. The opportunity for instant and constant distance-communication has, no doubt, made our lives more efficient, but it has also made them more demanding and has robbed most of us of the precious few chances we still have to get away from the pressures of life. We are too accessible.
Beyond that, I have been perennially irritated by the over-use, mis-use, and useless-use of cell-phones. It is no longer possible to be in almost any public place and not be within earshot of someone talking on a cell-phone. I glance around public places sometimes – airports, parks, coffee bars, public squares, parks – and notice that virtually everyone is either speaking on one, punching information into one, or at least holding one in his or her hands. They’re omnipresent.
With that being said, I do admit that they are a marvelous invention and have saved lives. They’re also a wonderful convenience. In the two months that I’ve had mine, it has already twice bailed me out while driving and getting lost, allowed me to reschedule a flight while stranded in a storm, facilitated airport pick-ups on several occasions, and given me instant access from anywhere to colleagues, family, and friends.
But still, I’m hardly a convert. Cell-phones still too often irritate me. Why?
More superficially, I get the impression that too many of us still think that being engaged in a cell-phone conversation in a public place makes us look important. I may be wrong and, God-willing, the near universality of the phenomenon should soon enough erase any such illusions.
More seriously, I’m concerned about how cell-phones are changing the way we relate and deforming us somewhat both in our capacity for attention and in our propriety. Let me explain:
First, regarding our capacity for attention: I agree with Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) when he suggests that mobile phones, text-messaging, emails, and other such media are making us so accessible to everybody that paradoxically we are becoming accessible to nobody. We are communicating all the time and, strangely, becoming lonelier in the process, more isolated from each other. Studies show that today, inside off of this instant and continuous communication, we in fact have fewer close friends and family life is being strained by technology, not enhanced by it. Technology is dividing us perhaps more than uniting us.
Beyond this, our excessive preoccupation with technological communication is producing in us something Friedman calls continuous partial attention disorder. We are becoming the antithesis of a contemplative. How do you stay in touch with your deep center when you are constantly pulled in all directions?
Recently in an airport, I sat beside a young man who was listening to an i-pod, working on his lap-top, and speaking on his cell-phone all at the same time. I suspect he would protest that he is now part of a generation that can “multi-task”. Perhaps there’s some worth in that since the capacity to walk and chew gum at the same time is indeed a virtue. But I would be wary of his contemplative capacities, just I would of his manners. Too often the capacity to “multi-task” is also the capacity to be impolite and inattentive to more than one person at the same time.
Then there is also what cell-phones are doing to us in terms of public propriety, etiquette, and manners.
In essence, we have turned the whole world into a phone-booth. But is that a bad thing? Efficiency-wise, no; but propriety-wise, yes.
Phone-booths were invented for a good reason, as were living rooms, offices, bedrooms, parks, living rooms, restaurants, dining rooms, theatres, and churches. We sit in public places today and we over-hear conversations that have to do with business, family life, intimacy, and trivia which propriety and manners suggest would be better conducted precisely inside of offices, living rooms, bedrooms, and parks – or at least in the relative privacy of a phone-booth. But the whole world is now becoming a phone-booth, just as it is also becoming a business office, a living room, a bedroom, and a venue for endless chatter in public about trivia that is best talked about in private. Cell-phones have not made for good hygiene, psychic or social.
In the end, cell-phones are a good thing. Sadly though our common sense and manners haven’t kept pace with the technology.