By Greg Ellis
“We do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but it’s fitting in a test of its value–a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity.”
– T.S. Elliot, American-born British poet, Nobel Prize for Literature
When travelling on an airplane I always listen closely to our flight attendant’s list of dos and don’ts. However monotonous, I want to hear if it ever changes. It never does. It has an orchestrated comfort, a rehearsal memorized indefinitely, performed with a perfunctory tone. The warnings are foreboding: in the event of this do that, don’t use your laptop, don’t smoke, the washrooms have smoke detectors, watch the seatbelt sign, here is a demonstration of how to put on a seatbelt. Don’t use your cell phone.
The cell phone nation that captivates us is a troubling sign of a technological innovation abused and misappropriated. On a video tape from eight years ago, I saw an ad for Motorola cell phones. The price was an exorbitant $1,300. Cell phones then were reserved for the rich, a symbol of status, the hand-held Lexus. Cell phones were a convenience and luxury for an exclusive club, a club that most likely needed the use of a cell-phone–businessmen, entrepreneurs, movers, shakers. Today, cell phones have infiltrated our surroundings with a limitless adoption rate. Our classes are interrupted by classical symphonic ringtones, a high pitched screed, the regular ring, tones downloaded instantly from distant satellites or the now banal Internet.
Between classes I am hard pressed to find anyone who is not chatting on their cell phone; a security blanket that strikes an instant cure for the harmful feeling of separation anxiety, each ring a suggestion that people want to talk to you. Indeed they must be important, people are calling them. Beyond causing annoying and interruptions, cell phones have subverted well-versed personal conversation, injuring our ability to observe our environment or worse, ever being even momentarily alone with our own thoughts.
We have perverted a technology that had many valuable attributes. The value and convenience of having a phone at my disposal is making a call when I need to, perhaps a tool to facilitate a career. Of course businessmen need to be accessible, yet it remains perplexing how the average university student clings to the cell phone with a mortal conviction, it has become a part of them, ceaselessly texting friends, mindless games, multiple vibrations.
There is a school of thought that the quantity of things is inversely proportional to its quality. As the quantity rises the quality invariably falls–axiomatic in many ways. The cell phone nation’s stranglehold has progressively lowered the quality of our communication, we are masters of “hello, how are you,” however we fumble in more profound personal interaction. The cell phone’s distraction is reshaping our very culture.
I often watch bemused as three females (or males, if you prefer) sit at a table together talking on their cell phones, impersonal conversation favoured over direct interaction. I watch even closer as males (or females, if you prefer) walk side by side down a hallway, friends going to a class, both simultaneously talking on their cell phones. Ask yourself: could they simply be talking to each-other via their cellphones?
This may have been an overreaction. For the most part the benefit from the technology far outweigh the costs, that is why we adopt it. Maybe it’s trendy, the price irresistibly seductive–a bargain not to be passed up. Most troubling however is now, when deboarding a plane I watch as travellers don’t light up a cigarette as their first order of business, but they quickly hit the power button on their cell phones.