Last month in NPR’s cosmos & culture blog, Alva Noe posed a Curious Question of Vanity, Urgency, Pleasure and Anxiety, asking readers if he should buy his sixth grade son a cell phone. Creatively weighing the pros and cons in a stream of consciousness style, Noe notices that he cannot elicit any memory from his youth where calling parents was vital. He argues:
I didn’t need [a cell phone] when I was his age. They didn’t exist then. Has the world reorganized itself so that a kid his age really does need a phone? When I was a kid I always had a dime in case I needed to reach my parents. Both my parents worked, and I knew where they worked, and I could pretty much count on reaching them. I don’t remember actually ever calling my parents. But I do remember the dime.
Like Noe, I cannot remember a time growing up where I felt that I needed a phone to let my parents know my location. Granted, I did not grow up in a major urban area and I attended a fairly small and isolated school, but that is not to say I was isolated from dangerous situations. I remember fishing at a river in the forest about 5 miles away from my home in Canada when my brother accidentally hit his forehead on a rock near the base of a waterfall. As blood trickled down his face and as his head swelled up I’m sure a cell phone would have been handy. Instead, we put a t-shirt over the gash, got out of the woods, and knocked on some doors, gradually getting help and eventually getting home. My parents were upset that we stained a good t-shirt with blood. They were not upset that they did not know we were playing by a waterfall. As Noe mentions:
I’m sure it never occurred to my parents to want to check up on me or have me check in on them. Their idea was: if we don’t hear anything, things must be OK. Was that a good policy? I don’t know. But it is a striking fact that I don’t know any parents who have that policy today. I think it was pretty common when I was a kid.
He’s right. Even in my rural, somewhat isolated, hometown I am noticing a growing sense that kids need to have cell phones and that parents need to be constantly informed as to their children’s whereabouts. Now, even without being a parent myself, I am sure there are plenty of great reasons for knowing where your children are at certain times in their lives. But what is it about our cell phones that gives us such an enormous sense of security? Is it because the cell phone, which is no longer a telephone in any original sense, has evolved into a far more powerful tool? Let’s think about that.
This cell phone of 2012, though small, is incredibly powerful. With an iPhone, for example, the library of Alexandria is condensed to a device no larger than a pack of playing cards. With a few quick keystrokes you can find out where your kids are, what your neighbour did on her vacation, how to do an oil change on your motorcycle, and how to make eggs Benedict for your wife on her birthday. With any number of applications I can play games with people around the world, or scrabble with my wife in the next room. With other applications I can start my car, open my windows, or brew coffee before I get out of bed.
As humans, we are prone to fits of insecurity. No one likes to admit it, but at least for myself, when I do not know how to do something or when something is complicated, I get a feeling of insecurity. Sure, for some this is worse than others. But when we locate the answer to our question or acquire the skill necessary to do a complicated task it is easier to rest secure. Perhaps the increasing capability of our phones to locate the answers to our questions and to perform daily tasks is minimizing large areas of insecurity in daily life. And since the phone minimizes this insecurity, it now becomes the source of our security. Speaking on the power of our cell phones, and noting their paradoxical ability to offer both pleasure and insecurity, Noe argues:
Here’s the serious point: cell phones are powerful. I don’t know anybody, at least not anybody grown up, who lived through the great transition brought on by the technology’s arrival who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with the phone. The device is always with us, always beckoning, always tempting us to give in to whatever kind of urge it is that makes us check text, phone, Twitter, Facebook, email how many times an hour?
As long-time readers of this blog know, I am something of a skeptic about addiction-talk. But it seems like a good case can be made that we are addicted to our mobile devices. They obsess us. They interfere with our engagement with the world around us. They afford us pleasure, but also anxiety — they never let us rest!
Whether they are addictive or not, I think it is safe to say that for many of us they are problematic. We check our cell phones with compulsion, much as we might feel compelled to steal a glimpse at our reflection in the glass as we walk by.
I don’t claim to understand the curious cocktail of vanity, urgency, curiosity, pleasure and anxiety that cell phones seem to serve up.
What I know is that it makes me nervous to think I should be serving that up to my son! Isn’t that like buying your son his first smoke? And isn’t that sort of gross? And isn’t he too young anyway?
What do you think?
As we increasingly cling to our mobile devices to the point that they are extensions of ourselves we are failing to address the reality of a world where children are raised by gadgets, or where they are taught to rest secure in cell phones. If any readers are contemplating the necessity of cell phones for their children I’d love to know your thoughts.