The advent of the portable phone has brought changes to society both subtle and overt. When they first came out, it was awkward to use cell phones in a public place. People who walked around talking to themselves were generally thought to be insane, and men would come in white coats and lock them away. Now, not only do people talk on their phones with a full voice and no visible handset, it is common for people to break off a conversation with a live person to speak to someone at a distance. How rude. The widespread use of mobile phones has undermined age-old mores of decorum and respect, and while there is certainly more communication going on, it is shallower and less private. I’m not sure the benefits make up for what is lost.
When I was a kid, the phone was considered to be something that was only used sparingly. Once my father had a party line, which meant that more than one household used one phone line, and occasionally we had to wait our turn. Sometimes, we would take the phone off the hook during dinner so we would not be interrupted. It was unthinkable that a child would have his or her own phone, and kids’ conversations were limited to 15 minutes for socializing. My parents’ felt strongly that there is a time for socializing and it is best done in person rather than over a telephone. Talking to relatives during holidays was probably one of the main uses of the phone, but this did not completely replace the practice of writing them a letter, on paper, that you would send to them through the regular old-fashioned postal mail. When we were at home, we were expected to take up our time working on hobbies, doing homework, reading, or engaged in some other constructive activity.
Since I was an avid reader, there was an anthology of stories that I read cover to cover as a kid, and one of the stories I read was called “The Murderer” [Bradbury]. It tells the story of a man in the not-too-distant future (it was written in 1957) who destroys his portable phone because he is sick of constantly being at the beck and call of his wife, his boss, or whomever. He is being visited by a psychologist in his padded room as he recounts his tale of continuing to destroy technology so he can be at peace, until it led him to be committed. Bradbury took note of the relentless march of technology, and the future he imagined was abuzz with a relentless din of chatter, propaganda, news, entertainment, and so forth, with people using their handheld portable devices for no other reason than they had them to use. Bradbury was very prescient about what the future would hold. Now the imaginary world he described is upon us and instead of opening doors for each other, making light conversation with strangers, or looking each other in the eye, we are a nation of media-addicted zombies, staring into glowing rectangles and poking at illusory images, taking pictures of our lunch, our cats, and occasionally subjects more salacious. What is so loathsome about sitting quietly every now and then, without having to reach into our pockets to fondle the electronic leash that binds us to the world at large?
When portable phones first emerged, they were monsters. They were so big they required a motor and four wheels to carry them. Rich people had them in their Mercedeses, and you knew because of the little squiggly antenna and the fact that they seemed to be incessantly chatting with someone just so you could see them with it in their hand. When I first saw this, I thought two things. One, that person is going to get into an accident, and two, what the heck is so important that you need to have a phone in your car? Portable phones signified wealth and privilege, and I suppose they still do. They are that extra little bit of convenience that makes us feel like we have an edge, or a super power. But they were hardly necessary. There were coin operated phones liberally placed in most public areas, and they had their own little glass room around them so that you could speak privately and escape the noise of the street. Eventually, the booth went away and if you had to make a call, people could hear what you were saying pretty easily. Superman lost his changing room, and another modicum of privacy was lost for the rest of us.
Then along came the handheld portable phone. At first it was just a phone, then it evolved into a text capable device, and you could even read your email on it. Of course, the iPhone was the big game changer, with its larger touch screen and many programs, and now there are many similar devices in all shapes and sizes. These things are so clever and handy and useful, that truly they are not portable phones anymore. They are portable computers, with maps, movies, calculators, language interpreters, and Angry Birds. No need to read a map or get out of the car to ask directions, just follow your phone, sometimes off the end of a pier or a cliff. People hardly even talk on their phones anymore; they tend to use instant messaging or social media instead. It is more convenient and not as much of a social faux pas to break your attention away from class to text “kthx” than it would be to answer your ringing phone. The point is, why bother? Why isn’t it enough to be fully present in what is going on in the here and now right in front of you? Ironically, possessing our own private devices has given way to the dissolution of any real expectation of privacy. We willingly give up our most private information to powerful interests who aggregate data to exert influence on everything from our buying habits to our political activism. Some people can’t help themselves from literally broadcasting their privates.
The comic Louis C.K. was talking to Conan O’Brien and he makes a good point [Team Coco]. In the course of anyone’s day, there will come a time when he or she feels a pang of loneliness, or dissatisfaction, or unquiet. In that moment, the reaction is to salve that tiny chunk of suffering by grabbing your phone and looking at Facebook. Louis says, just be sad. You’re lucky to be alive and feel sadness, and that sadness makes you human. We are, after all, human, and it’s understandable that we want to feel like we belong. We want to know that our loved one is there at the end of a phone line when we need them to support us. Constantly giving in to that impulse to communicate with someone eats away at our ability to deal with our own emotions and turns us into co-dependent morons who can’t concentrate on anything more than our own little world. We live in a culture of instant gratification and low attention span. The practice of writing a letter, once widespread, seems to have all but disappeared. We’re expected to smelt every sentiment down to fewer than 140 characters and we watch programming that is cut up into 3 minute sound bites. Some ideas are worth the patience to expound and elucidate, and the more we try to do at once, the worse we are at any of it.
There is so much to human verbal communication that is nonverbal. Body language, facial expressions, and looking someone in the eye are all irreplaceable components of communication that are lost over the phone or in a text. Anyone who has ever suffered through a conference call meeting can attest to this. The people on the other end of the phone are unreal, alienated participants in the discussion. This is why I practice “telephone meditation” as described by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “Usually when you hear the telephone, you cannot resist running to it. You are sucked towards the telephone and you are not clearly yourself; you are a victim. So, if you are capable of sitting right where you are and practicing breathing in — calming, breathing out — smiling, you prove yourself to be one who can be master of her or his own self. … When you hear the telephone ring for the third time, you continue to breathe in and out. Then you move to it, but you do so with dignity. When you pick up the telephone you are in a very good state of mind. You are calm. You are yourself” [Hanh].
Now, I admit. I love my iPhone, and I carry it around with me everywhere I go. It’s just that sometimes, I imagine chucking it out of the window of my moving car, and think of all the money I’d save. It might even save my soul.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Murderer.” The Stories of Ray Bradbury. 1st Edition. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1980. Pgs. 241-246. Print.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. “Telephone Meditation.” Buddhism Now. Buddhist Publishing. 3 May 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
Team Coco. “Louis CK Hates Cell Phones.” Video Clip. YouTube. Conan O’Brien show, Turner Broadcasting System, 20 September 2013. Web. 30 October 2014.