Security in Cell Phones

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 usThey interfere with our engagement with the world around usThey 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.


5 thoughts on “Security in Cell Phones

  1. I get that gadgetry may ease access to information, but what does that do to the value of the information? I went to a symposium presentation a couple of weeks ago where one of the presenters talked about exactly that. There has in the past been actual experience embedded into research processes which is slowly being nullified by the spread of IT, and I fear that in the loss of that experience we’re losing a key aspect of being human.

    Get the kid a couple cans and a waxed string. Worked for me…:o)

    BTW, is there any story about the Sikkema brothers that DOESN’T involve physical injury of some sort.?

    • Yeah, I’ve wondered that myself. I think it is now a lot easier to take a text out of its original context and approach it as nothing but a pile of data to be mined. For example, in my digital history class we had presentations from people creating programs to sift through thousands of old newspapers in Australia to locate the recurrence of the words “civil” and “war.” The program mined the text and spat out a really interesting info-graphic on the civil war as represented in the newspaper. When the historian was puzzled by the spike of the words in the 1950s, he had to go to the actual source and only then did he realize a musical had come into town called “The Civil War.”

      As for the experience embedded into the research process, I would agree that things are changing, not always for the worse however. One comedian on the radio recently talked about the fun of “not-knowing” the name of a band, because it would lead to numerous trials to try and figure it out, leading to contact with people, and ultimately new relationships. But now the gap between “knowing” and “not-knowing” is gone, when we can pull up info instantly.

      But again, this only gets at the real question: what is knowing. We are continually trying to embed information into the correct narrative. Computers can’t do this. And maybe humans are becoming less prone to doing this well, especially when we view information as an ends in itself.

  2. There are arguments on both sides when it comes to cell phones for children. I’m of an age where it was not even an option or a consideration. I have to wonder how much more reassured parents are knowing that their child could call them if needed. Is more information better? Is the cellphone a substitute for doing things with your child or exercising parental control over where they’re allowed to wander? When I was young and shopping in a mall with my parents, all they had to do was tell me to meet them out in front of a store at a certain time. I needed a watch, not a phone. What concerns me the most is this constant removal and detachment from what’s going on in our immediate surroundings. Do kids even listen to birds anymore or watch leaves fall from a tree?

    • Those are great questions. This summer I conducted a number of oral histories with people between the ages of seventy and ninety, to collect stories about athletics and the role of sport in their lives. One interesting point that came up in nearly every interview was a sense that kids today not only play outside less, but that they no longer know how to play outside. Now, I’m not sure how accurate these findings are because there is a sense of nostalgia when looking back, but I think the points you raise about parents needing to exercise so much control over where kids wander as well as the over-attachment to virtual worlds, both seem to contribute to this phenomenon. Thanks for your comment!

      • Sadly, I think what we see is the rise of more after school team sports – not that it’s terrible – but what happened to the impromptu play? Now, parents have to spend half their lives driving their kids to games. Nostalgia, yes, but self-directed play is good for the mind, body and soul.

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