The Restoration VIII: Cell phones

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

When telephones were first invented in 1876, various newspapers proposed proper behaviors for the new invention. Among the myriad ideas put forward was one that admonished readers to dress properly when speaking on the telephone – the idea of talking to someone in pajamas was considered rude. The thought was that this would lead to a gradual diminishment of manners in general conversation. This suggestion might elicit a hearty laugh today, but would that we might have heeded the spirit of the message, if not necessarily the letter.

Fast forward more than a century, and the permutation of Mr. Bell’s original invention, i.e. cell phones, has become an intolerable nuisance in our daily lives. It invades every moment of our existence: cell phone conversations occur in bathrooms, airplanes, classrooms, churches, dorms, taxis, workplaces, cars, bedrooms, subways…you get my point. What is worse is that, given that we cannot turn our ears off, we overhear most of these conversations - conversations that are often representative of the nadir of our civilization:

“Hey, I’m on the bus.”
Response
“Yeah, how was your day?”
Response
“Oh me too, totally.”
Response
“Oh I agree. I can’t stand this weather.”
Response
“Man, I can’t wait for the weekend.”

Do I really need to continue? You’ve witnessed this many a time, and if you’re not willing to admit to such obviously crutch-like conversation making, I certainly can. We have replaced times of silence where reflection on our inner and outer lives might have made for more interesting conversation with an unending stream of insipid banality. God forbid we be alone with our thoughts without a cell phone or iPod. We might read, or write, or (gasp!) pray!

I’ve hesitated to write about this subject for some time because anything I’ve read regarding this matter seems to treat it with blithe ease or rather Luddite fear. But, as the new year is upon us, what is obvious to me is that “always on” communication is harmful to society and to the soul. So, it’s time to push back.

Firstly, let’s make sure we understand the key differences between real communication and virtual communication.

Real communication

Examples: Family dinners, going out with friends, handwritten letters

Characteristics

*tied to a place
*allows for subtlety, subtext, body language
*demands (even if it doesn’t always receive) deliberation and manners

Virtual communication

Examples: Facebook, Twitter, texting, cell phone conversations

Characteristics

*occurs anywhere
*using subtlety is difficult or esoteric
*tends towards pedestrian topics

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for virtual communication. We can’t run from technology. But I do say, as someone who uses Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, that there is a time and a place for everything, and it’s high time that we, cell phones, and cell phone companies learned that.

As you may consider the New Year a good occasion to try new things, let me propose the following countermeasures against cell phones, countermeasures that I, as one of the guilty, will be implementing, with the following two general principles in place first:

General Principle #1: You are not that important. The President is not going to call. Your boss is not going to call. Neither your mother nor your mother-in-law is going to call. If they call and don’t reach you, they will simply have to endure what every President, boss, mother, or mother-in-law has had to endure in the thousands of years of civilization before the advent of cell phones: waiting.

General Principle #2: You are not at home. You are vomiting out your private thoughts and information in a public forum without consideration for the fact that most of us don’t care to hear about your private life. There was a terribly funny comedy bit some time ago (google “comedian yells into cell phone” for the video) which featured a man carrying an oversized cell phone and screaming banal details into the phone, like, “Hello! No, I’m at a concert! NO, A CONCERT!” The looks on people’s faces who were subjected to this funny-because-it’s-true bit were absolutely priceless. Just think, the next time you answer your phone in public: do I need to subject others to this, and for how long?

Recommendations

1. Cell phones must be turned off during family meals. I would say that the regular telephone, if such an anachronism still exists, should be put off the hook during this time. That way it cannot ring or go to the answering machine. When friends tell you later that it was busy for an hour (gasp!) you can tell them that during your family meals you take the phone off the hook. Then wait for the response. It should be interesting.

2. Cell phones should be turned off during all meals, period. For most people who live outside the drive-thru society that America perpetuates, meal times are a time to rest, recuperate, enjoy, and recharge, on the way back to work (Americans, please read Leon Kass’ The Hungry Soul to re-learn how to eat.). For goodness’ sake, you are at a table with live people. Would you abandon them to attend to the virtual? The unbelievable decline in manners that allows for a solid 1/3 of my Rotary Club (including myself), which has an average of 59, to be checking their cell phones during our weekly meeting is astonishing. Those businessmen who claim self-importance – I would again refer you to General Principle #1 above and assure you that though I have only had a business for six years, I know that it is completely possible to be away from the phone periodically throughout the day. I promise you will not die, your business will not explode, and the earth will keep rotating. Just keep repeating that for a while and you might believe it.

3. Cell phones must be turned off at the movies. Why are you in a movie if not to relax – and how does interrupting your movie to text, “Hey, I’m in a movie – ttyl” help your relaxation? In addition, your bright screen is inconsiderate to others.

4. Cell phones don’t need to be used .0007 seconds after your airplane’s wheels touch down. Yes, we all know you are here. Yes, we know you are carrying your luggage. Yes, we know you didn’t sleep. Yes, I know I sound like Andy Rooney right now, but if you must, please use text messaging and leave the rest of us alone.

5. Cell phones must be turned off at Mass. This is without exception and I’m not going to bother with an explanation why.

6. Cell phones must be turned off at night. If you cry the wolf of “emergency” then get an “emergency” line – be it a prepaid cell phone or a landline, leave it on all the time, and give the number to 2-3 people who can be trusted to understand the meaning of the word “emergency.” If you cry “but I use it for my alarm” please feel free to write me. I will send you an inexpensive, fully functional alarm clock free of charge if you promise to turn off your cell phone at night.

7. Cell phones must be turned off in class. Especially by athletes who are on scholarship. Hey, we know you're bored, but can you show some respect for the professor and for your fellow students? What the heck are you paying for if not to get an education? If you are paying to have text conversations with your friends, good luck finding a job. You already aren't hungry enough.
In short, we should take control of our technology. Why is it that most people are on the leash of their cell phones instead of vice versa? These countermeasures proposed above, while effective separately, used together will constitute a surge that will work, not because Fox News mendaciously says so, but because you will be, in various occasions and opportunities, pushing back on a device that doesn’t ever tell you “No” (well, perhaps when the batteries die).

When you use your phone less you will realize it is not attached to your body. When you realize it’s not attached to your body, you will realize you don’t need a cell phone to live. When you realize you don’t need a cell phone to live, you just might get on with real living.

(Phone powers down).

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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7 Responses

  1. dolorosa says:

    So true! We need to learn "cell phone manners". While traveling on train in Ireland I was looking forward to an interesting, peaceful trip but it was very noisy with all the cell phone conversations going on. Cell phones can be both good and bad like everything else but to me it has become really addictive to so many people and another distraction to keep people away from God. We really have to be careful of the snares of the devil!

  2. This is silly. Handwritten letters allow for subtletly, subtext and body language? One can express much more with the voice than with writing (well, most people can, autistic tendencies aside).

    This seems to be lamenting "this is new; it is evil" mentality. Writing was new once too. Look at Sanskrit. For its entire vulgar period, where it actually was a spoken language, it was NEVER written. It was only written to preserve ORAL traditions and stories (this would be considered Vedic Sanskrit, which is richer and more complex than Classical Sanskrit). At the end of its life, some smart people recorded it in detail in a way that could be studied (Classical Sanskrit) which would form the basis for study of it in the future.

    The spoken word retains the richness, the diversity and the range of human expression much better than any writing can do.

    The difference between "Real communication" and "Virtual communication" is this: electronics. No other common element is in each.

    Now, I shall go blog on how inappropriate it is to post blog posts on Sundays.

  3. cirdan05 says:

    Most cell phones that have an alarm function can be turned off and the alarm still works nevertheless. So really no need to leave it one because of the alarm. I do this all the time when travelling.

  4. kstewskis says:

    Good one, discretion is key in using these devices.

    My own priest texts me on occasion…most recently to "check in" on me during a personal issue I was dealing with, which was most appreciated. The nuns at the church also will text me if/when they need something.

    The convenience of communication should be exercised as a tool to be used responsibly, and not abused as it's apparently become.

  5. Liz says:

    I like the story of a man who was finally convinced by his grandchildren to get a phone for the convenience. When they were visiting, the phone was ringing, but he didn't answer. They asked him why not. He said because right now isn't convenient.

    Compare that to a teenager I heard speaking about cell phones (or mobile phones, where I come from) the other day. She said she gets very annoyed when she sends a text and doesn't get an instant reply, because it only takes five seconds to reply, and people can do that immediately wherever they are.

    Liz