Little Bubble #2:
Did you have a good Christmas? Were your spiritual and material ambitions accomplished? I had a nice couple of weeks off of work. We had a few low-key holiday celebrations with family and close friends. Perhaps the most memorable thing I did was to lobby for, and help plan, a family vacation in the snow. We’ve been up a few times before, but it has been a few years since our last visit. The kids are teenagers now, and it was a good time to get them out of town and doing something different—that they enjoy. We also spent time visiting with some good friends we hadn’t seen in a long time.
As far as presents go, I’ve learned that if you really want something, you need to get it for yourself. I got myself a smart phone, bringing me irreversibly into the 21st Century. I fought it off for a long time; I really did.
A phone is for making phone calls, I used to say. Why spend a bunch of money on a super-fancy device that (as reports tell us) puts out harmful radiation and compromises your privacy? But after a while, I realized that jillions of kids, teenagers, Gen X-ers and even old fogies are talking, texting, tweeting, taking pictures & videos, getting directions, listening to music, and doing all kinds of cool things with this little device. My kids text almost exclusively (rather than “voicing”). I need to stay in touch. So I bought a smart phone.
As a high school teacher, I’m always amazed by each successive generation’s adeptness with what we currently call “technology.” They seem to be born playing X-Box and Nintendo; texting; downloading their favorite tunes; streaming their favorite movies and shows, and posting videos to You Tube. Up until this year, our school had a policy against students using a cell phone in class. The punishment was confiscation.
Times have changed. Now teachers are getting more tech savvy (and younger). They want access to wireless Internet on campus for their own needs (teaching and otherwise). So my district has made wi-fi connections available on the school sites. With this accommodation, however, students have won a concession of their own: the new policy allows students to use phones in class, but only with teacher permission, and (ostensibly) only if needed for an academic activity. So the “decriminalization” of cell phones at school is a recognition that personal communications devices have become a necessity, and that they are here to stay.
Being newly initiated into smart phone ownership brings with it an awakening to the current zeitgeist: the reality that cell phones are a remote but essential extension of the people who own them. Everything they love and respect most is contained in those 8-12 square inches: their connections to friends, their music, their games, their Instagram, their Facebook, their GPS, their email, their coupons, their stock quotes… their connection to the known universe. When you buy a smart phone, you’re buying into a way of life. (What exactly are you signing away when you sign a communications contract?) A phone is more than a personal cybernetic secretary or even an electronic “mini-me.” It’s a receptacle of your very essence–your social brain stem, your scheduling cortex, your musical and entertainment pleasure center, even your physical conditioning program–which you consign to a remote and nebulous “cloud.”
With so much of your personal self contained in (or should I say “possessed by”) a seemingly intelligent little device that provides and processes data/pleasure/communication, losing your phone now means losing your identity, to some degree. It means being cut off from everyone and everything you know. It can amount to an anxiety-ridden catastrophe. It could, ultimately, lead to a psychological unmooring, or, as it is commonly called, a mental breakdown.
But even if you never lose your phone, are you missing out on certain parts of life? It’s becoming harder to get people to talk face-to-face. To me, texting adds a layer of media where it’s not always needed. Have you ever seen a group of kids or young adults sitting around in a circle texting each other? It’s becoming more and more common. People in public places—the street, the jogging path, public transit—used to make eye contact when they met, and try to muster some sort of verbal exchange, however awkward. Sometimes they met new people that way, who became friends. Now, almost as a matter of course, they block one another out, preferring pre-recorded media or texting a known acquaintance. Their focus is locked in to a tiny, glowing point, to the exclusion and apparent ignorance of anyone in the real, three-dimensional world. The first time I heard someone walking down the street, wearing a headset and having a phone conversation with an unseen interlocutor, I became very afraid. This person seemed to exhibit a behavior associated with insanity: talking to oneself, or to an imaginary “friend.” We used to call that “schizophrenia,” the mental illness characterized by the victim’s detachment from the world that everyone else can see and hear. Schizophrenics live in their own little world, unable to share an accepted commonality with others. Are our phones making us all a little schizophrenic?
With my entry into the current century comes my vulnerability to an over-attachment to my smart phone. I hope that having done without one for the majority of my life will give me some solace and perspective, should the unthinkable happen (the loss or theft of my phone). I still pride myself on being able to make old-fashioned voice calls (which I happen to find more sincere and more satisfying than texts), or even drop in on a friend in person. I still listen to CDs and the radio, and (although I know this sounds archaic) I own actual DVDs of some of my favorite movies, which I can watch any time I wish. And being from a slower, less instantaneous era, I reserve the right to answer texts when I’m good and ready … or just to ignore them entirely, if I so choose.
Am I glad I bought a smart phone? Yes. And I’m also very glad to have lived without one for an unnamed number of decades. There is currently no app that can realistically simulate the wisdom that comes from growing up “unplugged.”