Reach Out and Text Someone

by Jason Peters on March 18, 2009 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low


ROCK ISLAND Now that all public space is the exclusive property of cell-phone users and the deaf people they talk to, a jeremiad is in order, though I’m going to try to behave myself.


I am more than a little disturbed by the ways this pernicious little device has altered everyone’s life–including my own, though I don’t even own one. I note as a matter of first business what must surely be clear to everyone: to own a cell phone is to be owned by it. I think we ought to have one vender, “T-Mephistophile,” and be done with the delusion. The servant has pretty much become the master.


I also note how few people have any sense anymore that they actually live in the world of fragrant trees and trilling frogs. I see students and colleagues alike walk across our campus, which is beautifully forested, staring at little screens or yammering on and on about some gross indignity they’ve suffered, utterly unaware that at that very moment, in the sycamores surrounding them, red-tail hawks are eyeing the black squirrels as they frolick in the fescue. In the early morning stillness I’ve observed the quiet stealth of owls ganging up on a fur-bearing varmint, only to watch the owls swoop off noiselessly at the approach of some garrulous scholar, who’s probably never even seen an owl before, chirping loudly to the incorporeal air about what “is like totally obvious to everyone but her!” If it weren’t for half-dressed sorority girls desperate for attention, some of these undergraduate males on permanent screen-saver mode would never have any experience of natural beauty at all.


And there are those professional shoppers I see as I walk in each morning, the too too harried moms, punching little buttons with one hand and steering their Yukons with the other, neither eye on the road as they race to daycare with Pop-Tart-fed children blissfully clueless about how frequently their multi-tasking mommies imperil their lives–or, worse yet, use “text” as a verb.  I want to yank the children from the cars to save them–and the mothers from the cars to thrash them.


And then there’s the vanity, the urge and urge and urge, always the miscreant urge of the world. You can see the anxiety on this or that talker’s face:  there’s been no message in at least five minutes!  It’s slipping away!  But then suddenly the phone pulls its reassuring stunt:  Yes! Someone has left a message. Relieved, Biff or Muffy is once again rightfully situated at the center of the universe.


I would be remiss not to mention the unexpected tune in the classroom calling us to attention right when we’ve finally achieved, by great labor, a slight intimation of what Romantic joy is–or, if not a tune, then a buzzing vibration that at least lets me crack a dirty joke.  Or else it’s an augury of frustrate bitchery whirling like a dervish if Kaylee or Mackenzie can’t get a signal in the library, or it’s the head-start millions of people now have on their brain tumors, or it’s the planned obsolescence that keeps the suckers perpetually dissatisfied, or it’s the distraction so utterly inimical to true discipline,” as Wendell Berry pointed out long before these repellent things were ever imagined.


Deserving of a tirade, all of it, if for no other reason than that the cell phone, as one of my more sensible students said, has turned bitching into a spectator sport.


For my part, I think it’s too late to be worried about how More Bars in More Places has trivialized discourse itself–just as the jukebox in real bars has drowned out the conversation that Aristotle said is necessary to true friendship. We’re living in a time when calling from the bread aisle to say they’re out of hotdog buns is acceptable rather than embarrassing behavior, normal rather than aberrant. Why the errant husband must deliver himself of this information right now is only the most obvious question we ought to be asking.


But what else ought we to say?


In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) Neil Postman did a credible job of addressing this question with respect to the telegraph, which, he says, “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.” Samuel Morse himself had boasted that the telegraph would make “one neighborhood of the whole country”; Postman calls upon the Sage of Walden to respond: “We are in a great haste,” Thoreau said,

to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Thoreau, as usual, had it exactly right. “He grasped,” says Postman, “that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of that conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to.”


Postman goes on to discuss what the telegraph did to the basic news story, the gist of which is that it de-localized it. Because it became possible to get news from far away, news from far away became important. “James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that in the first week of 1848, his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content–of what relevance to his readers, he didn’t say.” In fine: it wasn’t long before All the News That’s Fit to Print included–nay, specialized in–the princess and her whooping cough.


If Postman is right to say “that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence,” what must we say about our much-vaunted “unlimited minutes” and “free” long distance–I mean aside from the fact that the mePhone is the author of peace and lover of concord, whose service is perfect freedom?


Maybe we’re afraid of silence.  Maybe we’re afraid to be alone with ourselves.  Maybe we’re bad company.  Maybe desperation or ennui has driven us to crave distraction.  Maybe there’s a dim recognition somewhere within us of how little we have to say, and maybe chatter is a means of filling the mighty void, an effort to forget how utterly bereft of thought we are.


We certainly talk too much and say too little. We forget (or never suspected) that the message will always be determined in part by the medium; having forgotten (or failed to realize) this, we indiscriminately acquiesce to all media, some of which have made meaningful discourse impossible–and in the process have debased the stately language of Shakespeare and the Authorized Version.


I am worried about what happens to people who cut  themselves off from the things that endure and immerse themselves in things that cannot.  Will they become deaf to the obvious implications of their much-abused native tongue? The term “cell phone” implies a prison as surely as “world-wide web” implies entrapment: we’ve been caught in a tangle and are about to have the life sucked out of us by something big and scary and treacherously reclusive.


My brother and I were on a train once from Manchester airport to Manchester Piccadilly station. In front of us a woman was filling the ear of a distant auditor by flapping her tireless Mancunian gums at a small device held to her head in full view and earshot of everyone on the train, which had stopped so we could all pay better attention. Twenty minutes later the train began to move again, and soon we were at the station. As the woman walked ahead of us down the platform, still squawking away, my brother, a taciturn man whom I speak to on the land-line phone about once every two years, turned to me and said, “I don’t have that much to say to anyone.”


And then we retreated back into the rich silence that has always been our shared element.



{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Roberto March 18, 2009 at 5:29 am

I have often thought of marketing dummy cell phones to people with schizophrenia: that way they can have their conversations with people who aren’t there without drawing the unwanted attention of the authorities. They would finally blend in with the rest of us.

avatar Jesse Walker March 18, 2009 at 10:42 am

It’s actually not very hard to own a cell phone but turn it off or leave it at home when you don’t want to be distracted by it. I owned mine for years before I could even remember my number when people asked for it.

I wish I used my cell more, actually. Phones may distract us from hawks and owls, but I’m still more likely to notice the latter when I’m out and about than when I’m chained to my office. (And really, did the professor pay any more attention to the birds around him when he had his outdoor conversations the conventional way: by walking next to somebody?)

avatar D.W. Sabin March 18, 2009 at 11:53 am

Ennui, in this day and age is a hopeful sign of cognizance. That we continue to be a willing prisoner of our technology…or, at the very least, an un-indicted co-conspirator in our technological incarceration is a continuation of a very old trend. Perhaps it is simply a holdover from times when repose or reflection made one an easier prey and so that particular component of the genetic make-up became more scarce while the shopping, evading and yammering gene consolidated into it’s highest form as practiced today.
One wonders now however , what easy prey the masses are distracted by their humming hive of information.

We do have Twitter though and this is at least an invigoration of primitive communication skills with our media sachems. Somehow though, for an unfortunate majority, it is more fulfilling to be a voyeur of our fellow technocrat than it is to peep at nature. Maybe it is as the writer-naturalist Michael Harwood suggested, when the matter-of-fact cannibalism and murder of the beasts in their fields caused him to rue something along the lines of “sometimes , Nature does not make the best theatre.” . Kicking a size 12 hole in one’s television as Doc Sarvis recommended is a satisfying thing though, only slightly less enjoyable than a brisk blast with the Twelve gauge as a politician appears on the screen in high dudgeon.

The best thing about these gadgets though is that they still do have an on and off switch, even though one must be less than 40 years old to master the great and abiding mysteries of a television remote control device. It seems to me that we have a good chance of seeing the off-button pushed more often now that a distrust of the more sordid aspects of the twentieth century seems to be growing amongst the generation raised on a Babel Tower of gadgetry. When we are able to accept that we are part of that insufficient word known as “nature” and not somehow independent of it, we might be able to create a more equitable techno-telos.

avatar Mark March 18, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Jason — Is it the device or the user that’s causing the degradation of human experience and communication? (I enjoy observing that sellers of drugs and sellers of technological products refer to their customers as “users.”) And is there a darker power at work here? The interplay between humans and drugs or technology has a deeper significance than inconveniencing us as we ride a train or corroding our language. The cell phone isn’t the problem. It’s the mythology of capitalism which creates a perceived need for this kind of device and our susceptibility to addiction that are destructive.

Cell phones, like drugs or alcohol, can be useful in creating fulfilling human experiences. Used in moderation, alcohol frees us from inhibitions. In many cultures, psychoactive drugs are used judiciously to alter the limiting perceptions of the brain and enhance spiritual vision. A cell phone can untether us from the restrictions of location. A cellphone and a beer or a joint could be used in concert to create a human experience that not only improves the life of the “user” but could positively impact the life of the passing observer. Imagine I’m walking through the woods and encounter the mighty sycamore. Uninhibited, thanks to the beer I just consumed, I am driven to an emotional frenzy and use my cell phone to call my brother to recite an ode to the red-tail hawk which just launched into flight. You, passing me on the trail, are amused. We share a smile and our afternoons are improved.

The dark lords of capitalism, like the drug dealer who offers a free taste of his addictive product, know that getting us hooked on technology loops us into a never ending cycle of upgrades and service enhancements. Addiction to technology leads to exactly the problems you’ve noted in your article. Those text messages do become the fix the junkie needs. If I become enslaved by a cell phone, technology has served the purpose of the dark lords. But I can be my cell phone’s master, not its servant. It’s the addiction, more than the device, which is the problem. Addiction lives in the user, not the cell phone.

avatar Kevin Carson March 18, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Like Jesse, I can see the potential for cell phones to be useful, if only most people who own them weren’t the kinds of idiots I see walking around chattering on them 24/7. I don’t own one, but I can conceive of myself owning one for emergencies and keeping it switched to voicemail. The problem is, in this culture most people act like you’re OBLIGATED to answer a cellphone (“But I called your cell!”).

I think communications formats reached their zenith with the landline phone with answering machine, and good old fashioned email. Both enable the user to deal with communication when it’s handy for him, as opposed to having to deal with constant interruptions in realtime whenever people see fit to bother you.

As for cell phones, IM and Twitter, they emanate from the ninth circle of hell. They serve the same basic function as Harrison Bergeron’s “handicap,” in rendering a consecutive train of thought impossible, but we don’t even have a Handicapper General forcing us to own one.

avatar Jesse Walker March 19, 2009 at 8:42 am

Cell phones have been awfully useful for the sorts of self-employment and alternative banking that you champion, Kevin.

avatar Katherine Dalton March 19, 2009 at 9:00 am

They are tools. They can serve, or they can cut, depending on the skill and common sense of the user. The question is, are we skilled and sensible enough to use yet another demanding technology in a way that doesn’t further diminish us? Clearly, as a people, we are not.

I also think that the names “Blackberry” (not, “whiteberry”) and “Twitter” indicate that their creators knew very well what they were about.

avatar Samuel Bass March 19, 2009 at 3:35 pm

“White berries” are usually immature and probably poisonous. Thus the latter describes the cell phone and the former its devotee. As for the inter-NET, it gives a new twist to Jeffers’ “The Purse-Seine,” the trap in which we are caught, as witless fish driven to spawn and die. The primal urge that lures us to our doom is what? To “express ourselves?”. Watch me wriggle.

avatar Kevin Carson March 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Good point, Jesse. I guess I’d be less hostile if I weren’t constantly surrounded by people who were obviously NOT using them for such sensible purposes (as opposed to “Hello? Oh, nothing much. I’m at the library/restaurant/theater/wedding/funeral.”).

I have to physically restrain myself from assaulting the people who bump into me in a store without so much as an “excuse me” because they’re so engrossed in electronic chatter, and then throw down their money on the counter and walk out–continuing to talk–without so much as acknowledging the cashier’s existence.

But that sort of thing seems to be part of a broader phenomenon, in which the most basic social mores of ordinary politeness and consideration are no longer being passed on. Just one example: I can remember, until fifteen or twenty years ago, almost everybody understood the idea of keeping to the right on a public sidewalk or corridor. Now I’m constantly having to move aside to avert head-on collisions.

avatar Kevin Carson March 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm

P.S. And all you damn kids get off my lawn!

avatar Aaron March 23, 2009 at 8:44 am

It sounds like the main objection to Dr Peters article is that cell phones need not be put to the nefarious ends that Peters has rightly enumerated; rather, by practice of restraint and common sense, we can enjoy the technological fruits of alternative banking et al without all of the bother here bemoaned.

As near as I can tell, this is the same argument made in favor of legalizing things like marijuana and firearms, and while it’s a difficult one to refute, the argument suffers from a weakness common to each circumstance (well, maybe not marijuana). The argument relies on the premise that all of the effects of our using any tool are only the ones we choose to allow–or minimally, that all of the effects of our using any tool are ones that we could choose to disallow. I take it that this premise is what other posters mean to argue for when they write things like, “It’s actually not very hard to own a cell phone but turn it off or leave it at home when you don’t want to be distracted by it…” or “[Cellphones] are tools. They can serve, or they can cut, depending on the skill and common sense of the user.”

But Dr Peters’ article points to the weakness common to these responses–namely, that there are effects of cell phone usage that we CANNOT control or choose to eliminate. In particular, he’s writing about the effects that using cell phones NECESSARILY has on communication; hence Postman’s “medium is message.” After all, if virtue requires skill (see Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land” in the book by the same name) and skill requires practice (see Nichomachean Ethics) how will we match the writing abilities of our progenitors, when, in virtue of our use of cell phones, they would have lent so much more of their communicative energy to writing than we do?

Now, the argument isn’t a new one. Nearly four centuries ago, William Bradford noticed the same phenomenon in his “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which offers an account of Thomas Morton introducing firearms to Native Americans. Bradford’s first objection was that these sales had led to the dramatic increase in colonial deaths, and this objection is rebutted in the same way that other posters here have attempted to rebut Peters; that is, by saying that the Natives ought to have acted with restraint and virtue, treating the weapons as tools. But Bradford has a second, more powerful objection: what does the musket do to the beauty (and virtue?) of the Native American skill with the bow? Because so much of that skill was tied to the practical use of hunting, and because the work of hunting was now done with a firearm, the use of the musket necessarily degraded skills with the bow.

This objection is the more powerful one, and it is at the heart of Dr Peters’ article. One wonders why none of the above respondents (esp. Mr Walker) have failed to take note of it.

avatar Mark March 23, 2009 at 11:48 am

@Aaron – Attentiveness is a virtue acquired through intentional practice.

The crux of this conversation seems to be that cell phones distract the inattentive, with deleterious effects. There are two solutions to this problem. The first is to get rid of the distraction. The other is to intensify the practice of attentiveness. Which solution is better?

avatar Aaron March 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

@Mark: To me, this seems like a false dilemma, because it doesn’t quite capture the lay of the problem–or at least, the lay of the problem as Dr Peters has identified it.

To put it another way, you’re right that one problem with cell phones is that they distract the inattentive, but a concomitant (and much ignored) problem with cell phones is that our using them necessarily changes how we communicate with one another. So, if we treat cell phones as an acceptable means of communication, no matter how much attentiveness we practice, we will never be as good at, say, letter writing (and, by extension, letter reading, and by further extension, reading and writing generally) as our ancestors were, because we are (almost) necessarily doing less of it. That is, we are intentionally practicing letter writing less than our ancestors were, how can we be as good at it as they were?

This problem, it seems to me, may not have been the crux of the responses to Dr Peters’ post, but it is certainly the problem at the crux of his post. So, when you ask whether we should toss the distraction or intensify attentiveness, I don’t think you’re asking the whole question, because that question ignores the kinds of consequences that we cannot control simply by intentional practice.

[By the way, I should've added to the end of my first response "One wonders why none of the above respondents (esp. Mr Walker, SAVE MARK) have failed to take note it." I take it that the sorts of consequences I'm talking about were what you also were talking about when you wrote, "The dark lords of capitalism, like the drug dealer who offers a free taste of his addictive product, know that getting us hooked on technology loops us into a never ending cycle of upgrades and service enhancements."]

avatar Jesse Walker March 23, 2009 at 2:14 pm

if we treat cell phones as an acceptable means of communication, no matter how much attentiveness we practice, we will never be as good at, say, letter writing (and, by extension, letter reading, and by further extension, reading and writing generally) as our ancestors were, because we are (almost) necessarily doing less of it.

But “we” — that is, Americans — are doing far more letter writing now than at any time in my lifetime. The conventions of email etc. are not identical to those old-fashioned letters, of course, but it’s clear that the trend that held for most of the last century, in which the telephone progressively took up a role previously reserved for text, has been reversed.

Anyway, I wasn’t writing a critique of Jason’s article. It’s perfectly legitimate to get annoyed at clueless people chattering on their cellphones. Our manners haven’t caught up with our media yet. But that’s only part of the picture. Used appropriately, cell phones can make your life less mediated, not more so. That hasn’t been true of every electronic device to come along.

As for the Native Americans’ skill with the bow, I think I’m more comfortable letting the Indians judge the wisdom of such trade-offs themselves, rather than relying on the touching concerns of a colonist who just happens to be their military rival as well.

avatar Mark March 23, 2009 at 2:15 pm

@Aaron – I don’t think adopting new means of communication requires abandoning the old. I, a cell phone owner, can still choose to write a letter with pen, ink and paper, or I could choose to transmit text messages in Haiku form. Degraded communication is a consequence over which we have control.

What other consequences of cell phone use can we not control by intentional practice?

You are right — my observation about the dark lords suggests that this is a battlefield on which we are at great risk. The addictive power of technology is regularly exploited to the capitalist’s advantage. Acknowledging and appreciating the risk is is an expression of attentiveness.

avatar Jesse Walker March 23, 2009 at 2:27 pm

What other consequences of cell phone use can we not control by intentional practice?

You can’t control the behavior of other people using cell phones. That’s where Jason’s argument resonates for me: While the rude woman on the train probably would have squawked loudly in any conversation, whether or not it’s on the phone, you can blame the phone for putting her in touch with her squawking partner even when she’s traveling alone.

(Of course, there are social practices that might reinforce the travelers’ fraying manners. The train could create a silent car, for example.)

avatar Aaron March 23, 2009 at 3:53 pm

@ Mark: No, I don’t think that adopting new means of communication requires abandoning the old either, but it seems like you’re making an unearned leap from “not abandoning an older communication form” to “not degrading communication generally.” Consider that, in days gone by, we would have had to share our cell phone thoughts by writing a letter, instead. Now, we’re using cell phones to communicate those thoughts, which means that, at a minimum, we are writing and reading fewer letters, which, if Berry and Aristotle are to be believed, means that we are not practicing our writing and reading to the degree that we were practicing them formerly.

And while this example may not seem to bear the kind of weight I’m trying to heap on it, think about how many more hours of reading and writing our current cell phone use would translate to. And while this circumstance is remediable perhaps by the intentional practice of doing more reading and writing with the extra time we glean from talking on the phone instead, the task of practicing attentiveness to our misuse of the cell phone certainly becomes more difficult than simply turning it off when we’re not using it.

But that said, the broader point is that something about the very way we communicate changes when our preferred (or casual, or normal, etc.) means of communicating information across distances changes when we use a cell phone instead of, say, writing a letter. Consider the difference between writing a letter to someone you love and calling someone you love on a cell phone. Receiving a long letter from a father or from a grandparent is a very different thing from receiving a phone call from them. And while part of that difference may depend on the perceived antiquity of letter writing, my sense is that there’s more to the story.

I take it that this is Postman’s point when he writes of Thoreau’s comment on the telegraph, that “[Thoreau] grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of that conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to.”

avatar Mark March 23, 2009 at 9:33 pm

@Aaron — I read and write considerably more than I did before I owned a cell phone.

I agree that our chosen methods of communication have influence over us and how we form our thoughts. I just disagree that it necessarily leads to a degradation of communication or thought. A three page handwritten letter may contain beautiful writing. So might a three paragraph letter written at a keyboard. As could that haiku composed on my phone. Will they be different based on the tools used to compose them? I suspect they will. Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse or better.

@Jesse — You may not have direct control over the behavior of a rude person on a cell phone, but you still have control over how that behavior impacts you. As you note, you can choose a different seat on the train. Or you could tap the woman on the shoulder and ask her to be quiet. Or you could sing really loud.

avatar Kevin Carson March 23, 2009 at 10:17 pm


Back around 2000 or so, when cell phones were just going mainstream, a friend of mine would keep a banana in his car. When he saw someone at a light talking on the phone, he’d hold the banana up to his head and carry on an animated conversation until the other person noticed.

avatar Mark March 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

@Kevin — that is funny. I’m taking a banana with me next time I get in the car.

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