|Jul/Aug 2014 Nonfiction|
Image credit: Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
Whenever people find out I don't have a cell phone, whether I mention it or someone else does, the same debate begins, especially if the people who become aware of the fact are my students. I've gotten so used to the conversation, I could now lay out both sides of it with as much or as little depth as I would like.
First, people will be incredulous, as if I have just said I do not have arms or a head. They cannot imagine someone can live without a cell phone today. I am usually the first person they have met who doesn't own a phone (that they know of), so they treat me like some newly discovered native tribe who treats their technology as if it is magic. They could understand if I owned an older phone, like a flip phone, though almost everyone I encounter has a smart phone these days, which leads them to their first argument.
They will bring up emergencies, as if no one had emergencies before the turn of this century. They will ask about hypothetical situations, ranging from the likely to the absurd. In one scenario, my wife will need to get in touch with me about something urgent. I cannot convince them there is no situation where she would need to get in touch with me that quickly (if she needs to go to the hospital, she should be calling 911, not me), so I have stopped trying after one or two responses. They then move on to the "side of the road" queries. I assure them I have broken down on the side of the road numerous times before cell phones became ubiquitous, and I managed just fine (I might have had to walk a couple of miles, but I'm in decent enough to shape to do so).
This semester, though, a student suggested a situation I thought was the most absurd I had ever heard. She asked what would happen if my car veered off the road and I broke both ankles. I'm not sure both ankles need to be broken to prevent my walking a couple of miles—one would prevent me just fine—but I thought she wanted to prove her point. I scoffed and said that wouldn't happen, at which point she informed it had happened to her uncle. I shrugged my shoulders. I did not ask her what she would do if lightning struck her car, killing all her electronic devices, and causing her to veer off the road and break both her ankles. It would not have done much good.
If pressed, I'll try to explain my rationale for living life without a cell phone. I usually talk about the benefits of solitude, how we need to be alone with ourselves to truly know who we are. I can go on for some time about how our society is suffering because we are becoming a people who are afraid to be alone, using examples like people standing in grocery store lines or waiting for tables at a restaurant. They are unable to go more than a few minutes, if that, before they pull out their phones and check Facebook, text someone, or simply play a game. They want something to distract them from what they believe is boredom. I would argue it is solitude, even in a crowd of people, but they do not see the benefits of living in that moment, even if it feels lonesome.
I can tell them about the school I worked at in Washington State that banned cell phones during the school day. Part of the cause was students using the phones inappropriately, both for cheating and for taking pictures they should not have been taking. But another part was the belief that young people need time with one another to truly grow into who they will become. They need time away from their parents (who seem to use phones more than the kids) to begin to discover who they are. Our headmaster told the story of a third grade boy who was visiting the school. When he was away from his parents for an hour, getting a tour of the school and observing classes, they texted him three times. School administration thought this behavior was unhealthy, and I agree.
Whoever is talking to me assures me I could turn the phone off or only give the number to a few key people, even use it only for emergencies, but I have seen how we all interact with new technologies. I once used email sparingly, but I now use it more often than I would like. Every person I know who has gotten a cell phone in the time I've known them or who has upgraded it to newer technologies has changed his or her behavior. Even people who resisted that change for years eventually changed in clear and distinct ways. People who used to enjoy sitting and talking in restaurants or coffee shops for hours now are unable to make it 15 or 20 minutes before they have to check their phone, or they will answer the phone whenever it rings, despite being in the middle of a conversation with the person across from them, ending whatever discussion was at hand. Essentially, they treat people as one more app to be used until something better comes along.
What I have realized about this debate, though, is we will never convince each other. If incontrovertible scientific evidence came out that using a cell phone on any sort of regular basis would take ten years off the user's life, every person who uses one would continue to do so. If similar evidence was published showing that using this technology strengthens relationships and adds to the quality of one's life or the length, I would continue not to own one. There is no way we will change.
Part of this intransigence is caused simply by a difference in personality. For whatever reason, most people conform to those around them. I'm not using conformity here with a negative connotation, though I know there's no way for me to sound otherwise. I truly mean only that most people follow the trends of society, even those who protest otherwise; it is typical human nature. I have no idea why I do not fall into this category, but I have seen it throughout my life, even to my detriment. When I was in middle school, I compounded the anxiety of that age by purposefully behaving in a way that did not fit with other students. For example, one morning, one of the windows of the bus was knocked out. No one was sitting there, both because it was cold and because it would mess up our hair. I sat there, of course, despite the fact my girlfriend would not sit with me. Even in meetings today, when we have votes, I have to resist a serious urge to vote no on almost every motion, even one I agree with (or even proposed), just because I think there needs to be someone against everything.
However, there may be one more reason we will stay in our technological camps, one that seems much less judgmental. Humans are almost always irrational, yet we feel compelled to provide reasons to defend all of our actions. People who own and use cell phones will always insist they make their lives better, even if presented with evidence they don't (see the number of people who believe multitasking is more effective, despite every scientific study since the 1800s showing otherwise). People who do not own cell phones refuse to see any benefit to the technology at all, as if there are inventions with absolutely no upside. We then create a rationale to defend our points of view when pressed.
This is why we continue in behaviors we know are bad for us. Some of us continue to smoke or drink too much alcohol or caffeine. We refuse to exercise or give up fatty foods, though we could lay out every reason we are in poor health. We surf around the internet or flip through the hundreds of channels just one more time before going to bed, though we know we will be exhausted the next morning. We give away personal information to social media sites because we want to continue using their service, and we watch football, aware of the injuries these players will incur that will ruin their quality of life in just a few years. Even while we're doing these things, we consciously think we don't want to do them, yet we are unable to stop ourselves. Discipline is a word we only associate with negative connotations. We seem to be at war with ourselves, and we continually lose.
I don't know if this behavior is simply part of the contemporary era, which would explain our political situation, or if it has always been the way people behave. The Luddites existed, of course, and people railed against the horseless carriage when it was first invented, so perhaps we have always been polarized. If those two examples are indicative of the future, I should buy a cell phone now and avoid the rush. I won't, of course, at least until land lines cease to exist altogether. When they do, I'm sure I'll find a good reason to buy whatever the latest talking technology is.