If it sometimes seems that life is spiraling out of control— or, for others, getting remarkably easier to control— due to technology. Nothing tells the story better than the cell phone. It’s as if science fiction is playing out in real time.
I have seen this phenomenon a number of times in restaurants. Couples, even groups of three or four in a booth, absorbed in virtual reality and absolutely oblivious to each other. In one Florida establishment where you can order your meals and pay on a touch screen I observed one couple this past winter, perhaps in their forties, avoiding conversation and eye contact with each other throughout some 45 minutes. Then they arose without a word, as if on cue, and walked out, both absorbed in their devices.
Perhaps it is no accident that one definition of a device is a deceptive maneuver or mechanism. Is there deceit in a cell phone? They are what we make them, like everything else in life, but sometimes it seems we’ve all been captivated by this magical access to the internet and we are missing the joy of living.
The cell phone got its start in World War I, believe it or not, with the field telephone on the battlefield. It seems war fuels all our advances from technology to medicine. So war does have its advantages, other than allowing evil empires to take over the world.
It took almost six decades for this concept in communication to break through as a device for the masses. Motorola developed the first hand-held cellular telephone and introduced it to the consumer in the spring of 1973. It was huge with a six-inch antenna. Not for your pocket, that’s for sure. Motorola followed up in the late 1980’s with a “personal phone” and a collapsible antenna. It was still pretty bulky and only for phone calls. The threshold of the millennium was rapidly approaching when Phillips introduced an early version of the smart phone with wireless access to email and the internet.
Mobile phones with text messaging (SMS or Short Messaging Service) have been on innovative cell phones since 1993, starting in Europe, and you could buy a Nokia, let’s say, for $900 to $1,000 ($1,600 in today’s money). Of course, there were few to text to until cells became affordable to the masses. Phones with text messaging didn’t go on the American market until 2002— when it really became available to all American consumers. It exploded from there.
So, even if it seems that emails, texting and phone access to the internet have been with us for a long time, they’ve only been around for the lifetime of a seventh grader. That darling of the software industry, the app, has only been available via the App Store for barely seven years, the lifetime of a second grader.
Email is my preferred method of communicating and has been for a number of years, but many of those emails result in follow-up phone calls or face-to-face meetings. It has been a valuable communications tool. So has texting, but I seldom use it for idle chatting. “What time U leaving?” “Should be home in half an hour.” Stuff like that. I don’t use it for conversing beyond direct need to know. That is particularly true of people 40 and older and not so much with young adults or youth.
One study concluded that as many as 80 percent of young adults use text messaging as the primary way of communicating with friends. People text to propose marriage, but they are more likely to text with bad news or tell somebody something that will likely upset them. Break-up texts are reportedly becoming commonplace. Texting to avoid confrontation means that things we used to have to do face-to-face are more infrequent.
It’s too easy to escape an uncomfortable conversation by texting. In fact, it can be the coward’s way out. The bottom line is that surveys are telling us that young adults don’t use the phone, as in a phone call, as much as they did five and 10 years ago. When they do it is light-hearted chatty stuff. You’ll call a friend you haven’t seen in a while and talk for half an hour about shopping, movies and “50 Shades of Grey,” but something more serious— especially if hurtful or disagreeable— is more likely texted short and not-so-sweet.
There are certain skills you need to deal with people on difficult issues, including compromise, and texting can’t do that as a rule. I sometimes wonder if we should take the internet away from members of Congress while in session and tell them to start talking to each other instead of Tweeting potshots or slamming opponents on social media. Views become entrenched on social media and seldom lead to compromise.
Communication has the power to unite if used wisely. It also divides. We prefer to pursue views similar to our own on the internet, rather than listening to others haranguing us with opposing views over our morning coffee. Debating and disagreeing— the tools of confrontation— help us forge opinions of substance that we can defend intelligently.
The cell phone literally puts the world in the palm of your hand, but, oddly, it seems to have shut many of us off from genuine human contact, perhaps the most invaluable learning experience. Try to explain that in a text.