The Final Word On Cell Phones

Front Porch Republic

In the early days of FPR, and then again more recently, I was impertinent enough to write disparaging remarks about cell phones, which as everyone knows are utterly pernicious. On both occasions interlocutors expressed their disapproval by espousing the publicly sanctioned predictable sentiment: that technology is neutral, that it is only our use of a given thing that renders it good or bad, right or wrong, boonful or baneful.

As any pine board knows, this is nonsense. It’s time for the correct opinion to be more widely disseminated.

Plato, if I remember aright, was worried about the perfidy a certain new technology—we would recognize it by the name “book”—would perpetrate on memory. He was vexed by what the transition from an aural to a written culture would do to our capacity to bear things in mind.

Now I like books — even Bill Kauffman’s — and I’m going to side with them. The book is a technology I’m going to defend. But I also happen to sympathize with Plato, who, I believe, was right: by writing things down we cheat the memory. I would go so far as to say that a written record resembles all technology inasmuch as it evicts something or someone: the book evicts the memory, the combine evicts the farm family, the self-check-out aisle evicts the cashier, the drive-thru evicts mom, the spell-checker evicts you.

Can we cultivate memory nonetheless? I think so. I think we can and I think we should. A buddy of mine in grad school would never write down a call number. If he forgot it by the time he’d walked to the fourth floor of the east stacks, where our kinds of books were shelved, he’d punish himself by walking back down to the card catalogue to look it up again. He’s got a well-cultivated memory. Plus he was smart enough to drop out of grad school—twice.

Will our memory equal that of the natives at whom Ben Franklin marveled? Will our records be as accurate, or bear as much truth, as their oral histories? Doubtful. Is that a price I’m willing to pay to have books? I suppose it is.

I’m saying that the book is a net good. I’m not saying that it is an absolute good. I’m not saying that it is a neutral technology. If it were a neutral technology, I would say so.

All of this is in some sense a variation on the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve did become as gods, knowing good from evil—and they did so at a price they were apparently willing to pay. We have all become as gods at a price we have apparently been willing to pay. In this economy the felix culpa is in some sense an attempt at honest bookkeeping. It considers not the gross but the net gain.

And that, O Technophiles, is the point. Keyword: net.

We had to pass through many technologies to get to the abominable cell phone: the screw, the wheel, the lever, the incline plane, the pulley, the quill, the printing press, the typewriter (with its beautiful but costly music), antibiotics, telegraphs, telephones, disposable diapers. All useful. All costly. Then there’s the automobile, man’s biggest mistake, and the high-rise, which expresses his tumescent hubris; and there’s the sheep-skin sock and the pill and the distillery and the jockstrap and the television (man’s second biggest mistake) and the “smart” classroom with its TVs and DVD players made of materials that once reposed peacefully in the earth, even as did the materials that went into this hateful computer I now sit at, which I bought for $35 and which, someday, I will be man enough to let be.

Some of these things are tools as Aristotle understood them—extensions of the hand—and some are not. But none of these things, whether tool or machine, is as sinister as the cell phone. What is it about this repellent little gadget that so abominates, that so offends the imagination?

It has destroyed manners. It has destroyed public space. It has compromised privacy. It has enslaved and mastered those who think themselves its master. It has transferred money from insurance companies to body shops. It has turned bitching into a spectator sport, and I won’t be at all surprised if it turns out to be the cause of an epidemic of brain tumors.

But what troubles me the most is that it has taken distraction to a new low, and distraction, as the sage of Kentucky says, is “inimical to true discipline.” Forget that students can’t sit through a lecture without going in search of vibrating, buzzing, or blinking evidence that they’re still the center of the universe. Actual adults behave in exactly this manner.

Where has sustained concentration gone? Wither is fled the visionary gleam?

Wither? I’ll tell you wither. Into the hand that goes into the pocket that pulls out the poison, the poison that first afflicts the mind and at last blasts the earth whence it came–whence it came benign ere man converted and co-joined and assembled it into a tiny little tyrant.

I know of people—I see them every day—who have no clue that they live in the world. In the world! Yesterday, after several cold gray days here in the Midwest, the sun finally came out to set all the changing sugar maples ablaze with a golden resplendent light. And what were Mackenzie and Dylan and Jordan and Khrystynah doing? Not noticing the surface brilliance, that’s for sure. They were texting away. Meanwhile Nature, that vast unity of images, that unity not of things but of images, went unregarded.

In the time it took me to pass an undergraduate on the sidewalk yesterday I heard her misuse the word “like” nine times in a narrative that had at its center passing out during a movie (man’s third biggest mistake) but waking up in time to puke—all of this yammered, for all to hear, into a device that, mark me, would have been sowing brain tumors had there been a brain affixed thereto in which to sow them.

This insidious device does not encourage silence. It does not encourage reflection. It does not encourage editing. It does not encourage anything useful to us or good for us. It is a mistake. Do you hear me? A mistake.

Yes, you can call for help on the highway if your car breaks down. Every clown knows this, just as every pet Chihuahua has at least a dim awareness of it. But if there were no cars to break down, and no highways … but then we must go back a long way and start asking questions of technology that we could have asked but didn’t, because we were too busy rehearsing the Shopper’s Creed: nothing is as good as what might replace it.

If you call from the bread aisle at the Super Target to part with the earth-shattering news that “they’re out of hotdog buns … that’s right, hotdog buns,” you have done aught but prove Marshall McLuhan right: the medium is the message. You want to divorce the two? You might as well separate black from white in pigeon shit. The cell phone trivializes human communication. It tells Mandy that what she’s thinking right now ought to be said to someone. Thank God there’s Amber, who’s checking messages during Business 306: Owning Toddlers Thru Marketing

Screw it. Screw Every Bit of It. Give me the human voice, executed by lips I can see (he said, tapping away at a keyboard not nearly worth the three bucks he paid for it).