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Feb 18

Cell Phones and Society – An Inconvenient Truth

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Cell Phones and Society

I recently watched a documentary about the Amish.  One theme that came up time and time again was how the Amish decided which, if any, technologies would be permitted into their communities and how a “convenience versus community” standard was used when making such decisions.  To the Amish, family and community come first, above all else (no matter how seemingly inconvenient this may seem).  A new technology is only permitted once it is very carefully reviewed and perceived that its benefits would outweigh the impacts it had on their community.  I was deeply impressed by this idea and started to think about how convenience technologies impact my own life and the life of many people.

Cell Phones and Society

Technologies in and of themselves are neither convenient nor inconvenient.  The view of convenience is a social and historical construct.  What I view to be convenient, may not be viewed as convenient by someone else.  Changes in society can make new things convenient and make previously convenient things now inconvenient.  New technologies also can work to change our perceptions about what is convenient or not convenient.  This idea, in fact, is what drives the profits of many corporations.  Let’s take a look at cell phones.

A Brief History of Communication and Interaction

Communication is an integral part of human life.  We have found ways to share information and to interact with one another since the very beginning.  Early people used cave drawings to share stories, storytellers have functioned (and continue to function in an ever-shrinking number of societies) as the revered living libraries of history and knowledge, other societies have relied predominantly on community meetings led by elders, others still have used various forms of writing (and later, movable type) to disseminate information.

Then came the Industrial Revolution.  People moved to cities in droves to work in factories and the telegraph became the newest and greatest form of convenience.  Let’s stop here for a moment.  Was the telegraph actually convenient in and of itself, or did it ‘become’ convenient because running horses between train stations became inconvenient after it was introduced?  Did the fact that growing cities made face-to-face interaction with other communities and cities make horses inconvenient?  In this sense, technology itself, can (and does) change our view of convenience.

Next came the telephone.  Before people moved to cities, there really was no need for a telephone.  The people that mattered most to you; your family, your baker, your butcher, your fishmonger, your green grocer, your doctor, etc. all lived within walking distance.  Face-to-face communication was paramount, and it built strong ties within these communities.  The telephone became needed when people lost face-to-face contact and distances became greater between families and the people that made food and other products that people came to want.  Growing distances between families and communities made the telephone a welcome convenience.

Then came cell phones, and later, the internet.  I remember Crockett and Tubbs using a toaster sized cell phone to get the latest update on a drug deal gone bad on Miami Vice.  I remember using the internet for the first time at university and thinking it was simply amazing that I could interact with people around the world instantly (I still do).  It all seemed so convenient at the time.

What is Convenient?

The reason why these things ‘seemed’ so convenient however, was because not having a cell phone or internet access became increasing inconvenient as more and more people adopted their use.  Local communities were no longer enough – the world was now at our beckon call.  By shifting our focus globally, however, we seem to have lost any sense of the local.  Local communities, however, fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, are the ones that keep us grounded and feeling a part of things – give us a reminder that we matter and that we are valued.

Perception as a Social/Historical Construct

There is a degree of convenience in being able to carry around a phone with you, but this is only because now it would be highly inconvenient for me to have to call in for my voicemails at my home line using a pay phone or some other land line.  The fact is, however, that the world worked well without instant communication; most recently, when a home answering machine was the cutting edge and the social expectation.  We were still able to maintain some sense of ‘local’ under this setting.

Perceptions about Accessibility

Cell phones have also impacted our perception about what reasonable access to someone should be and the expectation of availability for work-related stuff has become.  Many people now find themselves working much more than they used to simply by virtue of the fact that they have a company-issued cell phone.  This is very inconvenient for many.

Family

Cell phones have also impacted our families.  They have made mommy and daddy less accessible through increased work hours and expectations, and have made them virtual slaves to instant messaging and voicemail.  Just take a look around – while people used to look up and even talk to one another on the streets, now they seem completely engrossed in their virtual world of snippets and voicemails and text messages.  This is very sad.

Foresight

The saddest part perhaps, is that virtually no one put any thought into how this would impact our society.  The Amish would never have let this happen.  The “convenience versus community” litmus test would have thrown cell phones out long ago.  Convenient?  Yes, when you now practically need one to be considered a human.  Community?  Well, we have become a society of virtualists instead of realists.  If you really want to talk to someone, go and visit them (though this is often hard to do now due to what we now consider to be ‘reasonable’ distances between us and the people we love or value).  If it is urgent, just ask anyone on the street to call 911 on their cell phone.

The Global Community

Super-advocates of cell phones and the internet (mostly cell phone manufacturer and service provider CEOs) seem to always bring up the idea that it we are living in a “shrinking world” and that we are all members of a “global community”.  Is this, in and of itself, desirable?  I am all for acceptance embracing other people.  I do feel empathy for others when bad things happen to them.  The question is, how does a flood in China directly affect my life when I am concerned about a burst pipe in my basement and I need a good plumber?  What could I possibly do about that anyways, when I am treading water in my basement?  How is what Kate Middleton is wearing more important than whether or not my local grocery store will have bananas available this week?   The fact is that, while I do have an interest in the welfare of others and what is happening in the world, my ability to spend time with my daughter and to put food on my table is far more important to me.   Cell phones and the internet make information overload a way of life.  It makes it very hard for us to focus on what is most important; family, ourselves, and our community.  The Amish seem to recognize this and I appreciate them very much.

SUMMARY

The perception of convenience is a social and historical construct.  What is convenient to me, may not be convenient to you or to someone many countries away.  Cell phones are considered by many to be convenient.  They are only convenient, however, because face-to-face communication has become more difficult as families and people move further and further away from the people and others that matter most in their lives.  I worry about the degree to which people now seem to live their lives so virtually.  The art and enjoyment of personal interaction is under attack in a very serious way.  Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, et al. are benefiting from this change in our views towards convenience.  Do we drive this “convenience before community” mantra or do they?  All I can say, it that convenience (and our ever-changing perceptions about convenience) always seems to come at the cost of community.

If that’s not enough, there also seems to be some evidence that cell phones may cause cancer.  Check out my post HERE!

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Author: Jason Milburn  Google

Frugal dad – focusing my money and energy towards happiness and the things that matter most since around 1985.

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