Phone slave no more
Posted by seumasach on January 7, 2009
7th January, 2009
It was a fresh morning after a night of rain, and we were hiking up into the mountains in southern France. The plants and trees glowed with green, vibrant life. Sheep and cows were meandering in the fields, and the blue sky stretched out for miles. Then I heard a faint beeping noise that didn’t sound like a bird. The Italian hiker next to me had a heavy pack and was sweating profusely in the cool morning. He heard the beep and didn’t hesitate to pick up his phone. It was his mother calling to see if he was alright at the start of his hiking trip. For the next 10 minutes, instead of listening to birds sing and observing the morning view, he had a conversation with someone who wasn’t there.
This was the start of a month-long hike I took through northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I decided to take this break from work in part to get away from my cell phone – as Americans call mobiles – and computer screen. This time away offered me some perspectives on how – to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau – I had become a tool of my tools.
Before I left on the hike, I read an interesting essay in the magazine Adbusters calledTechnoslave, written by Eric Slate. In the essay Slate recalls: “Once, while I was riding on a crowded bus, the man sitting next to me threw his cell phone out the window. When his phone rang, instead of dutifully answering it, he casually tossed it away. I was stunned. He looked at me, shrugged and looked away. I had no idea if it was his, if it was stolen or if he even knew what a cell phone was. But in one seemingly careless motion, he managed to liberate himself from something that has completely consumed me.”
This story resonated with me. Like so many other people these days, my livelihood is based on being connected – online or on my cell phone. But five years into what had essentially become an addiction to cell phone use, I realised that instead of keeping me connected to the world, my cell phone had set up a wall between me and the people and community around me. And I’m not the only one. When hiking through Spain, off the Verizon grid of connectedness, I reflected on how cell phone use has crept into every aspect of daily life, ironically weakening the basic human communication that is the fabric of any community.
Billions of people across the world use cell phones. Though cell phones can be wonderful,liberating tools of communication, freeing us from the confines of an office and providing more leisure time, they often do the exact opposite. Cell phone use has blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time, increasing stress and tension within families and between friends. As Slate commented in his essay: “It seems the more ‘connected’ we are, the more detached we become.”
Back on the hiking trail in Spain, I saw this play out in myriad ways. Though I was experiencing cell phone freedom, I found myself surrounded by people, mainly Europeans, on their phones, texting and talking with concerned family members and friends throughout the day. People were torn between developing friendships with strangers and contacting old friends and family they already knew.
There is a risk of being too connected. While I was hiking, I got lost a few times. I saw new sights and was surprised by unexpected landscapes and towns I wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Back in the US, whenever I got lost, I would always call a friend for directions on my cell phone. With a cell phone, you’re less likely to go down the wrong street and see new things or unexpectedly meet new people.
So, when I recently returned home to Burlington, Vermont, I got rid of my cell phone and traded in an old, rusty bike for a regular landline telephone that is connected to the wall and everything. Now, I go outside and don’t immediately make a phone call or check my phone. Therefore, I’ve seen things in my neighbourhood I never noticed before, like a big flower garden around the block and artwork and sculptures down the road. Now that I’m not glued to my cell phone, I’ve met new people on the street and at the supermarket, struck up conversations with neighbours I haven’t spoken with before and talk with my friends face-to-face instead of over the phone.
Instead of cutting me off from the world, getting rid of my cell phone has helped me get in touch with my community. The other day, my neighbours and I marvelled together at a moose running down the street toward the lake. Somehow, that moose brought the neighbourhood together more than a cell phone ever could.