23 January 2011

A Semi-rant about cell phones, etc.

In her new book, Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle attacks the destructive potential in all the new technology floating around, especially Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones.

"Turkle's thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world."

Like most ideas put out there for pushing sales of a book, this one is overstated.  However, there is a kernel of truth here.  As Catholics, we are naturally sacramental thinkers/doers; that is, we think and act in ways that reveal and enact God's grace to ourselves and others.  Technology can certainly be used to reveal God's grace, but it can be abused as well.

The distinction between the use and abuse of a good is as old as the Bible.  St. Augustine made it a central feature of his moral theology.  Aquinas followed his lead.  And the Church continues to teach that any Good Use can be turned to Abuse.  Think of food, alcohol, sex, money, relationships, etc.  

My biggest complaint with cell phones is that they tend to interrupt face-to-face contact by demanding immediate attention.  Like a small child who hasn't quite learned the social skills to politely excuse himself, cell phones ring/sing/squeal until they are attended to.  Of course, its the cell phone owner who abuses the personal contact by dropping the conversation and answering the phone.  

At the root of the Evil that is the Cell Phone is the notion that we must all be 100% available 100% of the time.  The lie told by the cell phone is that we are 100% available 100% of the time.  We aren't.  Sometimes we are at Mass or in the confessional or visiting with a friend or shopping for the family.  We are occupied and the squealing cell phone is a rude intrusion. 

Now, before the comboxes fill up with stories about how having a cell phone available helped to save a life, etc.  I know.  I know.  I really do.  They are more than just convenient sometimes.  But tell the truth:  how many times have you answered your cell since you've had one?  How many of those times have been calls that were truly urgent, meaning to have missed the call would  have meant injury or death to a loved one?  How many times do you hear people in the check out line or at the gym or even in church just shooting the breeze with someone on the cell instead of attending to the business and the people right in front of them?

A story:  I was looking for a book in a Borders one night.  The place was packed.  The guy standing next to me was on his cell.  He was telling the person on the other end of the line that he was bored and that he had no one to hang out with.  He's in a bookstore with literally thousands of books and he's bored.  He's in a bookstore with more than a hundred people and he's all alone.  Really? 

If there's a better scene for a play on the postmodern human condition than this one, please let me know.

P.S.  The irony of grousing on my blog about the alienating effects of technology has not escaped me. 

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5 comments:

  1. If you have not already, pick up a copy of Niel Postman's book Technopoly. Eye-opening!

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  2. "He's in a bookstore with literally thousands of books and he's bored. He's in a bookstore with more than a hundred people and he's all alone. Really?"

    I can remember lots of times being utterly lonely in the midst of crowd; my college years, in particular. And that was before cell phones, laptop computers, and wireless Internet. Heck, it was before the Web.

    When you're an introvert, large numbers of people you don't know aren't a help when you're feeling lonely.

    The fellow's boredom, on the other hand, is his own problem. :-)

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  3. The best use of cell phones is to keep tabs on your children. The bus drivers see kids call their parents and tell them they've arrived or are departing school. Then they call to say they've arrived at Scouts, or Soccer. For parents, cell phones are a blessing.

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  4. I agree with Will. I have found it quite easy to be totally alone in a crowd, even if there are people I know there. This loneliness causes anxiety which causes me to reach for my phone and call a true friend.

    How you can possibly be bored in a bookstore is beyond me, but it is also beyond me how you can walk out of bookstore without a book.

    Technology can be abused easily and it can be evil when it is abused. It annoys me to no end when I am having a serious conversation and a cell phone rings and the person I am conversing with picks up the phone. By picking up the phone you are telling me exactly how much respect you have for me and the conversation we are having. I understand looking to see who called or texted because I have an aging grandmother in poor health and if I get a call from my mother I answer it. I turn my phone off in class, I turn it off to go to mass and confession and I turn it off during serious conversations. We seem to have forgotten how to give God, much less anyone else, our full, undivided attention and by not giving others our full attention we miss so much. We miss our friend feeling sad and in pain because we our too busy on our phones to notice the little things. We miss out on the beauty of the world because we walk and text and forget to look around. Sometimes I wonder how many lives are lost because we are too busy to stop texting and pay attention.

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  5. Ah, the days of the rotary phone, party lines, and be home when the street lights come on. The days when most conversation happened in person. I remember as a kid, hoping to be included in the conversation of adults. As I grew older, hanging with my few buds, we talked all the time, about cars, girls, fishing.

    In my adult life, I spend the majority of time alone, and have made good friends with loneliness. I have a cell phone, but my hours are goofy, so I don't use it all that much. When I do get home, face time is priceless. The phone goes on vibrate, as Mom, and later, Dad, raised me with an emphasis on good manners and politeness.

    I used to have a Blackberry, but about 3 months ago, I went back to a flip phone built to mil specs. I missed the Blackberry for about two weeks. No longer. It's easier for you and I, Padre'. We grew up before the advent of these things. Like most 'advances', they have two edges. The bad side is younger people who can't look you in the eye when speaking, and less of an attention span. Face it Father, we gettin' old! ;-)

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