So I’m walking around Target yesterday stocking up on the basics, soap, Kleenex, things like that. As I wander around with my list of items and discipline myself to buying only what I need and not the tortilla chips and salsa that cry out to me from the chips aisle, I pass several people who appear to be talking to themselves. I approach these people warily because this Target is located on the edge of a slightly dodgy area where sad people sometimes stand on the street corner in their rags and shout at the cars going by.
The third person I see doing this open air monologue is a large, well-dressed African American lady built like Queen Latifah. She has long straight black hair that hangs in an oval around her face. She is delightedly carrying on a conversation and it suddenly occurs to me that I can’t see her ears and that in all likelihood she has a Bluetooth device and a cell phone in her purse.
Mystery solved but I start to think to myself about the implications of this cell phone revolution we have experienced. It started in the US in 1983 with large clunky phones. It has evolved to smaller, lighter, more powerful phones that talk to cars, computers and wireless ear pieces. These days it isn’t so obvious when someone is on a cell phone call because they don’t need one arm cocked to their ear any longer. They can walk and shop and drive with hands free and mind engaged.
Nobody has to be where they are any more. They can be with their friends, their boss, their clients, whomever they want to with the push of a button and by speaking the name of the person in their auto dialer. It’s a bizarre evolutionary change in our social behavior.
The cell phone has connected us and isolated us all at the same time. The argument for connecting us is easy to make because when one has a cell phone these days there are few spots where a call can’t be made or received. Unless the phone is turned off or silenced, the person with a cell phone can be connected to almost anyone from anywhere in the world.
Back in about 1994 I took a trip to Toronto with my Dad and we were driving out to Lake Simpco and we were in the country outside of Toronto. I had my bulky Motorola bag phone in the car and it began to ring. It was my secretary at work in California. That was my first realization that my ability to be independent, out of touch, a disconnected soul wandering the world, was compromised by this electronic wonder. I marveled at the fact that some network could place my call to my phone from over 3,000 miles away.
I’d argue that cell phones also disconnect us from each other. So many people are shackled to their cell phones. The cell phone often takes precedence in their minute-to-minute functioning. People talk on their cell phones in the checkout line while the poor cashier is trying to deliver good customer service and a make a brief but personal connection that will encourage the customer to return. People talk on their phones in restaurants, at concerts, in the park. The old axiom “Wherever you go, there you are” just isn’t true any longer. It’s more accurate to say that wherever your mind goes, there you are.
Making people drive without holding a cell phone is a good thing because people should drive with both hands on the wheel, or at least have both available to grab it if needed. But the cell phone takes one’s mind out of the car and into the virtual word of a conversation with someone completely removed from the present driving situation. I’ve used the phone extensively in business when driving and there have been times when I cover half the distance home during a conversation and can’t recall the landmarks. I have marveled at the ability of the mind to focus away from the present to the virtual.
The cell phone often acts to isolate us as we interact with the world around us. It acts as a buffer between us and other people in the world as we text, take calls and carry on remote conversations. It is interesting that many people seem to even use the cell phone to insulate themselves from other people they are personally with. It is possible that it’s a social status builder to talk to other people while with people, to take “important” calls from work when in social situations, to promote self esteem in that other people have a need for one’s virtual presence.
Cell phones are changing our social interactions and isolating us from the real world while connecting us to a virtual world. It’s not so far from the physically connected people in the movie “The Matrix”. I would not be surprised to learn that the cell phone companies have physically integrated designs on the board for permanently connecting individuals to the Net; it’s probably just that they haven’t figured out how to market the surgery yet.