Columbus, Ohio USA
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Be Here Now
A plea for cell-phone sanity
By Joel Knepp
January/February 2015 Issue

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Mark Stivers

It goes without saying that we are firmly entrenched in the cell-phone age. The cell phone and its many applications have changed the lives of a significant percentage of our fellow humans. The widespread use of smart phones with cameras, instant Facebook connection, and a zillion free or cheap apps has transformed the simple telephone into a far different creation than Alexander Graham Bell ever imagined. This marvelous device is like many other features of modern life – good in some ways and bad in others. Like fire, it’s a wonderful thing that needs to be controlled.

I own a Nokia flip phone that is perhaps ten years old which I carry around in my backpack and fish out maybe once or twice a month. I’ve been told that it’s now considered hip – Beam me up, Scotty. Nobody has my number and it’s only used to call out. This device, although not connected to the Internet or able to take photos, never ceases to amaze me. Since my phone is mostly turned off, it almost never needs recharging, and it never breaks. When I go overseas, I rent a local phone to make connections and handle problems.

To me, raised in the era of two-pound dial phones and having experienced party lines (ask your grandma), a cell phone still has the aura of science fiction. However, it’s just a tool, like a screwdriver. Because I wasn’t raised with it and it’s not second nature to me, it doesn’t control or define my behavior or interactions with others. I neither tweet nor have a Facebook page, and yet – amazingly – I have a rich social life, enjoy many activities, and communicate regularly with a wide variety of people. I do lots of texting, yes, but via the somewhat archaic apps know as e-mail and Word. Obviously, when it comes to cell phone use, I’m on the outside looking in, not a member of the tribe. This gives me a detached vantage point, somewhat like a cultural anthropologist who observes and reflects but does not directly participate. And from this vantage point, I can perhaps see things insiders cannot. I see that the cell phone is turning things a bit askew.

Many folks seem to feel the need to be constantly in touch with everyone they know all the time, and this sometimes causes problems for others. Like many of us, I experience the oblivious knuckleheads on the bus or in the café loudly blathering to someone not physically present some shockingly private information about their alcoholic brother-in-law. As a transportation walker, I am especially wary when I spot a driver negotiating busy traffic while punching a phone. I also observe countless folks who are unable to both give turn signals and use their phone, and you can guess what takes priority. Otherwise intelligent people routinely cross busy streets with more interest in their cells than in their personal safety. We all encounter the inconsiderate yappers who treat store clerks badly by refusing to put away their phones while checking out. And I’m long past my initial dumbfoundedness of seeing someone using a cell phone while bicycling. But the thing that really concerns me is the way some people behave with these devices in company of people they supposedly have chosen to be with.

To wit, 1) two young people are walking down my street on Saturday evening on what appears to be a date. Both are healthy-looking and attractive. But instead of interacting with each other they are both hunched over their phones. Love the one you’re with. 2) A group of friends in a restaurant can’t seem to keep the thread of conversation going because they have to check their phones every minute. Talk now, text later. 3) People are at an enjoyable event but they really aren’t there because they are too busy taking and posting photos and videos of each other. Live life while it’s happening. 4) I run into an acquaintance I haven’t seen for a while but she would rather mess with Facebook on her phone than engage me with full attention. Prioritize people over devices.

Cell phones and other electronic devices are not just making our remote communication and access to information easier; they are changing our brains and our ability to coexist as social creatures. Social skills that evolved for over millions of years for our survival are in danger of eroding, and techno-addiction is threatening our social fabric. Perhaps it’s time to put on my Luddite hat and scream, “Stop the insanity!” I contend that for many individuals, the cell phone is no longer a handy tool but rather a monkey on their back using them as a tool, with the gleeful participation of corporate America; you know, those Croesus-like organizations you pay every month for coverage and whose pricey devices are obsolete not long after you buy them. The more connected you are, the richer they get!

I’m fully aware that the culture has changed, and until the oil runs out we’ll never go back to old-style communication. The challenge is to use cell phones and other electronic devices sanely without giving up a chunk of our humanity. This is my plea: Before you pull out the phone, think about where you are, why you are there, and especially who you are with. Don’t let the device control your behavior. There is plenty of time for shopping, cat videos, Twitter, and gossip with your sister in Brooklyn when you’re alone. Just for something different, try looking around at your neighborhood when you walk your dog.

Direct your attention to the people you are with and the events you are participating in. Don’t your friends, family, business associates, and cute dates, for gosh sakes, deserve your full attention when they’re right in front of you? To borrow the words of Richard Alpert AKA Ram Das, Be Here Now. Try that on for a new year’s resolution and give the cell phone a rest.

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