THE NEW FEAR
Can You Bury Your Electronics? Or does that seem impossible to do?
I’ve spent the last year and a half without a cell phone.
You’re probably reacting to that line as if it read, “I’ve spent the last year and a half without breathing air.” Cell phones have become such a crucial part of our daily lives that most folks rely on them more than the majority of organs in their bodies.
In fact, you can get your spleen removed and continue living a normal existence, but the same cannot be said of a cell phone.
Without it, you cannot expect to have a job, a consistent network of friends or a GPS guiding you to your destination, not to mention porn on-the-go.
For this last period of my life, I haven’t had those things because I’ve been traveling. I’ve been crossing borders too frequently to hold on to friends, and sleeping anywhere that offered a free bed or a bit of floorspace so I didn’t have to work. It’s what has allowed me to conduct this experiment.
I recognize that this is not a lifestyle most people are seeking because for the reasons listed above it simply isn’t practical. Soon I will make my reentry into the world as a real human being and, though somewhat reluctantly, purchase a phone again.
For now, though, I am a freak among my generation, and that gives me the valuable freak’s perspective.
In the same way that one can only see the lily pads in a Monet painting clearly when standing far away, distance from a cell phone has allowed me to observe its role in our lives with more clarity than is possible for those who are pressed right up against the blurry brushstrokes.
Read on and I’ll share what I’ve learned:
1. Being in two places at once means you aren’t anywhere.
I’ve witnessed countless situations where this occurs, but here’s one in particular: I was in a restaurant eating vegetable fried rice, marveling at how, in Spain, even cheap Chinese food comes with a full bottle of delicious wine.
Across the room from me was a couple on a dinner date. The guy had his phone smashed up against his cheek like he was trying to merge with it, yammering about a gig he had coming up while the girl across the table stared vacantly at her soggy egg rolls.
When, at last, the call finished, the guy explained the conversation to his date as if she hadn’t just heard the whole thing. Then when he concluded his monologue, the phone rang again, and the same sequence repeated itself.
He got the meal to go and left with his arm around her waist yacking on his phone to his provider about getting a new model.
I couldn’t help but think maybe she was the one who needed to get an upgrade.
People go to the movies and stare at their phones the whole time, reading articles about the film that’s happening right in front of them. But most common is when people pull their phones out in the middle of conversation in order to “send a quick text” or “look something up.”
I wonder how these people would react if, while they were talking to me, I pulled out a book and said, “Just a second,” and proceeded to leisurely read a few pages and then say, “Thanks for waiting, sorry about that.” Would they feel I was devaluing their presence in favor of a bit of reading, which obviously could wait until later?
For me, it’s the same. Technology gives us access to another dimension at the cost of depriving us of the one we come from.
2. Instant communication has transformed us all into paranoid, over-protective moms.
Less than a century ago, if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to either travel directly to his or her house or write a letter. Then, with landlines, at least people were not able to carry their phones with them when they left their homes, and so their lack of response could be attributed simply to having gone out.
Now, the phone clings to us with the unfaltering loyalty of a tapeworm, and it sucks us dry of our excuses. To not respond is nearly the same as plugging your ears and humming when someone asks you a question.
Maybe the same kind of irrational worrying occurred in the days before cell phones were so universal, but with letters, it was on the scale of weeks and months; with landlines, hours and days; now it’s minutes, seconds and the infinitesimal spaces between delusions.
I’ve never spoken on the phone nor texted with my current girlfriend, and that I believe is one of the reasons it’s been the most rewarding relationship of my life. We’ve rediscovered the pleasure of letter writing.
Letters are like vinyl records: Though technologically obsolete, it has a warmth and romance that should never go out of style. But more importantly, slowing down our communication has forced us to build our relationship on sturdier, less fleeting foundations than machine-gun texts.
Plus, it’s way hotter to read dirty talk when you can see a person’s excitement in his or her frantic scrawl and inhale the scent of his or her skin still clinging to the paper, than it is on a cold, impersonal screen.
3. Eye contact is the 21st century dodo.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then we’ve boarded up those windows and the soul inside is wilting from lack of light. Walk down a busy street and you’ll notice that in the crowd, not a single set of eyes meets yours.
More than likely you won’t notice because you, too, are staring at a screen.
Within a few decades, I believe we’ll see a new medical condition where people can no longer prop their heads upright because spines will have ossified in such a way that necks arch permanently downward.
Corporations will have to rent billboard space on the tops of shoes because no one looks at the sky anymore.
Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine that the soul mate is real and that in every person’s life there is one moment in which his or her soul mate appears. What if this person passes you on the street and your eyes never meet because you were too busy looking at your phone?
Of course, eye contact is not just about romantic love, it’s about reminding strangers on the street or friends at a party that it’s pretty cool to be a human and not an ant.
Cell phones have become cigarettes for the eyes. We’re so comfortable with them that necessity has replaced luxury, and our eyes feel naked and exposed without a screen to gaze upon.
Remember the Greek tale of Narcissus, who stared into a lake at his own reflection for so long that he shriveled up and vanished. Narcissus is back:
He walks down the block in skinny jeans, cursing the glare of the sun on his precious screen, yet unable to take his eyes off a reflective surface, until he once again disappears.
At least that first time around Narcissus was guilty only of ignoring the lover that chased after him in vain. Today’s Narcissus ignores the whole world.
Dammit, man, look up! Look up while you’ve still got a neck to do it! Your phone’s an exact replica of millions of others, but every set of eyes is unique!
4. We’ve mistaken being alone for loneliness.
Having a cell phone is like carrying your friends with you everywhere you go. Say goodbye to contemplative moments on park benches, long walks with nothing to think about or even a bit of peace and quiet while you’re taking a crap.
For centuries, that twice-daily bowel movement enjoyed on the porcelain throne was akin to a holy ceremony, for it was the one time of day you could be by yourself and be sure no one would interrupt. But no more: Now for the first time ever, your friends can be there with you!
Even if you aren’t conversing with your real friends, cell phones provide an endless supply of imaginary friends to distract you from yourself, in the form of rapid fire updates on the lives of celebrities, viral videos of people you’ll never meet, Tinder and so on.
We’ve become so accustomed to this state of semi-being that the second our phones run out of battery, coldness sweeps over us and we feel ourselves teetering over an abyss of loneliness and despair, like when an addict is deprived of his vice.
Humans are social animals. It is normal to want to be surrounded by others; in fact, it’s necessary for our mental health. That’s why solitary confinement is the highest punishment.
What makes humans unique is not sociality, but our ability to self-reflect. That’s why we can recognize ourselves in the mirror when other animals can’t. That’s why we can construct tools from nature and imagine ways of improving them, or why we’ve invented art, music and science.
If we lose that time to be self-reflective, we will slowly see those things that make us human deteriorate. Along with it, our social lives will become increasingly shallow because without having time to find ourselves, there will be less about us that is actually worth sharing with others.
A party today is a bunch of people on their screens not interacting, just being alone together. Then it’s an emptier, more chronic loneliness that sets in: the loneliness of only existing in the eyes of others.
That’s the irony: We use our phones to medicate our loneliness, but at the same time our phones are causing it.
For most of us, life is a slot machine slideshow of streaming videos, news feeds, texts and tweets and pixelated twats. Where then is the time left to exist as ourselves?
Remember that music is made not just of sound, but silence, and a painting without space to resonate in is impossible for the eyes to navigate. Set aside time to exist for yourself and no one else, for we can only learn to not be lonely through being alone.
Group hug, everybody. I acknowledge cell phones aren’t going anywhere, so don’t mistake this article as the ravings of an out-of-touch geezer shouting at speeding trains because, hey, I’m only 25.
It’s important to recognize that we are the first generation to become so obsessed by cell phones and other screen-based gadgets, and that makes us the guinea pigs. We won’t know the effects of any of these technologies on our bodies, minds and souls until it’s too late.
People used to drink mercury because they thought it was a medicine until they found out the hard way that it wasn’t. New is not the same as good, and so everything should be considered guilty until proven innocent.
Rather than passively accepting each gizmo that comes our way, it’s important to criticize and question what it wants from us.
These technologies should be like the garnish to life, perhaps even a side dish, but never the main course. Seek out what makes us human; discover what makes you you.
Then, once you’ve come to terms with those things, feel free to check out that latest YouTube video of the dog walking around on his hind legs dressed as a butler. Just don’t forget your date across the table.
~ Author Tom Grotewohl