Friday, May 22, 2009

Lives of the Cell Phone

In my community college class this week, I asked the 22 students how many had cell phones with them at that very moment.

Twenty hands went up.

The two without cell phones were obviously different, but just how different?

I had some idea because I’d left my phone at home, as I often do.

But unlike me, the two non-cell phone students had made a decision not to have pocket communication at all. I suggested that in doing so, they were not alone, at least historically speaking. They were like virtually all human beings pre-1980. For starters, think of Plato, the Buddha, Jesus, Jane Austin, Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nary a cell phone among them.

But if cell phone users are absent in history, they certainly aren’t in the present; nor, if humanity manages to survive, will they be in the future.

I suggested to the class that having a cell phone, or not having one, helps define who we are as human beings. It defines how we feel about our relationship to the world, to time, to space, to privacy and to our fellow human beings. Indeed, as phones become “smart phones” (mini-computer terminals), they define what we do with much of our time — how we spend out lives.

With much else to talk about in the class, we didn’t explore the ideas further, but the topic certainly has an allure.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that each major communication invention creates a new “extension of man.” The printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, the telephone, the radio, the television, the computer, the cell phone all change us and how we relate to each other and our environment.

In ways, the innovations make us more aware; in other ways they make us less aware.

McLuhan’s observation nestles neatly into the fascinating field of “media effects.”

In the class I touched on the subject of media effects by asking how we might go about measuring them.

One of the two non-cell phone students, Shelby, raised her hand. “Study what happens to people when they are deprived of a particular media device.”

Good idea. We could, in fact, study her. How was she different in her cell-less state?

I suggested that we might further, as an experiment, ask our horde of cell phone users to give up their phones for a week and then study them.

“Over my dead body,” snarled one student in mock defiance. I might as well have been suggesting that he stuff his ears with cotton or tie his hands behind his back.

He and the majority of the class, were clearly different — very different in some ways— from the technologically self-deprived minority.

But how?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article, although I object to your phrase "technologically deprived" in the final paragraph as it implies deprivation of a presumed good. I would offer "technologically non-addicted" as a possible option.

I work in the high-tech manufacturing industry, and have been involved in everything from PC assembly, semiconductor manufacture and flat panel displays for the past 15+ years. I do not own a cell-phone, pager, laptop, PDA or have internet access at home (I'm at work as I type this). I am not deprived, nor am I somehow "afraid" of technology (far from it-- it pays my mortgage!). I'm just not terribly impressed by the hype.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Thanks for the comment.

I've substituted "self-deprived" for "deprived." I don't think "addicted" describes all cell phone users. If you go back to the "extensions of man" reference, are we "addicted" to our hands or feet? They just are.

Today, and always, technology "just is" part of the human experience. It's how we use it that's important.

7:18 AM  

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