I remember when I got my first cell phone in the spring of 2000. It was a PrimeCo brand and it was ridiculously expensive. I believe I paid $40 a month for 250 “anytime” minutes and then had maybe 1,000 minutes available after like 9 p.m. or something ridiculous. I was still an undergrad and it was a foolish expenditure and unnecessary. Fortunately it was a month-to-month plan so I wasn’t roped into anything; that experiment lasted a month. I didn’t need it, none of my friends had them at the time. In those days, people still stuck to their plans if they were to meet you, or at least you knew where the usual haunts were. It was, after all, college, and this was, after all, a college town. Not New York or Chicago where the possibilities are endless. And sometimes you just never crossed paths with those you had hoped to or intended to. That’s what the next morning was for, to recant the evening and all the shenanigans that took place.
Another thing about the “good old days” (pre-cell phones) was that you couldn’t hide behind them and act as if you were doing something or talking to someone important, or kill time playing stupid games, or reading headlines from pop culture websites. If you had nothing to do or were waiting for someone, you simply had to sit there and stare at the wall, twiddling your thumbs and stirring your drink. God forbid you actually talk to someone you don’t know, or *gasp,* read a book. When cell phones first hit the streets there wasn’t the possibility of texting, let alone surfing the web. So in the earliest days they were more practical, less escapist. Actually, my first interaction with a cell phone was in the early 90s when I was a wee buck in middle school or early high school. My folks had a bag phone in their car, ridiculously oversized and not for fun and games. It cost .99¢ a minute back then. Emergencies only. But as time went by and technology continued to outsmart people, the stuff we did in the comfort of our homes was able to be done in the comfort of our palms. And that, ladies and germs, was the beginning of the end of society.
I was late to the game with adopting mobile internet – intentionally. The pitfalls of easy access were all around me. I knew that those gadgets were products of alienation. Definitely a Marxist bend to them. Think about it. His thesis was that proletariats were alienated from their labor in that the goods they produced they couldn’t afford to buy or use. So if we modernize and adapt this theory, those gadgets that you have in your hand that let you access all of the world virtually, well, they don’t let you access any of it realistically. By simply becoming absorbed in these handheld time wasters we prevent ourselves from having REAL interactions with real people and real environments. We live vicariously through our phones.
So I was happy to see an article in the Washington Post recently that referred to the sum of society who are so absorbed in their little worlds through their little gadgets. They called these folks “Deadwalkers.” So appropriate. Have you ever had some fool run into you on the sidewalk because they were so absorbed in their mini-computer? Have you ever had to honk at someone at a light to nudge them along because their head is down so they are reading TMZ and not paying attention to traffic? Or perhaps you’re working at a sandwich shop and some loud buffoon is chatting away on their phone while trying to place an order with you, oblivious to everything but their superficial conversation? These people are Deadwalkers. And we’re breeding them and socializing them by saying this is okay. I see moms pushing strollers with their infants chatting on phones or scrolling through emails. Dads texting on the phone or checking scores while they play catch with their kids. We’re conditioning them and saying this is okay. No one is really “all in” anymore. That is, unless, they’re “all in” for themselves. Of all the problems in the world today, there are certainly hundreds more in need of our attention than this issue, but this issue is rooted in much of the socio-cultural issues we do have. It’s not a far tangent to say personal immersion in our mobile and connected worlds has further distanced us from the community of aspiration and connection. In 1985, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death about the negative ramifications of TV on the individual and society. It was re-released in 2009 to show its relevance to the age of the internet. Perhaps it is due a third run for the age of the Deadwalkers. Building off of George Orwell’s Brave New World, Postman called TV the new drug that was putting society into a state of bliss while the powers that be ran away with our freedoms, personalities and culture. The “news of the day” was diluted into soundbites (twitter feeds anyone???) and people simply skimmed the surface, never venturing too deep into the issues of the world. Additionally, people also no longer had to face reality; societal reality was now constructed by the consumer. Your world was what you made it, for better or worse.
And I’m not a completely old fuddy-duddy, I know that the times change. I know that millennials rarely talk on the phone, that texting is their preferred form of communication. I know that soundbites and headlines are sometimes all people need to make decisions in their world. There is not a right way to live life, nor should anyone try to prescribe otherwise. I also know that people like multi-tasking, chatting on the phone, sending emails, keeping up with their social circle as they walk to work, grabbing a coffee to start the day or simply to fill half-hour voids in their otherwise hectic lives. In fact, our society has really been built to have these small windows of time to do things, 45 minutes here, an hour there. That’s what makes our society so ripe to TV, video games and the like. We prioritize work, some call it the modern religion. Really, it’s just the remnants of the Protestant Work Ethic Max Weber wrote about so long ago. Our days and lives are now well-suited to us needing to create our own entertainment and fill the gaps in our schedules. We now choose to do it with our heads down and our minds elsewhere. I understand the beauty and importance of music on so many levels, and I can appreciate people enjoying a soundtrack for their day. But what do you miss out on when your ears are being blasted with Bach, Meek Mill or the Foo Fighters? What opportunities do you pass by when you’re unaware of what unfolds around you?
The individual does not exist as they once did. We are slaves to our commodities. The more we feel connected, the less we actually are. Sure, the times they do change, but that doesn’t mean for the better. I recently read that the club scene in Australia was dwindling because people weren’t going out anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. People were meeting online and having private parties in houses or parks. And sure, that sounds good in theory, but what are we missing out on by not stepping into the social forays of our mass culture? The public offerings that used to promote community interactions and social relationships like churches, clubs and fraternal organizations have weakened or lost their appeal. Bars and restaurants still thrive – for now – but what about the future? And while this may seem to be a tad off the initial topic, in reality, it’s part and parcel. The cozy confines of out virtual worlds have been extended into our palms, and while these instruments can be used for tools of building real relationships, they are often (perhaps unintentionally) used as tools of escape and lead to further societal fragmentation. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” As dreary as that may sound, now we don’t even offer a look, and the silence is obfuscated by the glare of our screens…
Slave to the Traffic Light