Bad connection: cell phones symptom of America’s obsession with isolation

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Recently I had a cell-phone conversation that began when my brother called me at home, continued while I was driving to the gym and ended when I told him I had to work out. Problem was, my workout had already begun: I was using one hand to keep the phone earside and the other hand to lift one of the bars on the military press machine. A gentleman walked by, chortling “I’ve never seen that before.”

Last month at the same gym I was next to a young woman talking on her cell phone while using the treadmill. I say “using” instead of “running” because her walking pace was similar to my three year old’s when I send him to timeout. She was not perspiring. “Likes” and “totallys” were overheard, punctuated with the requisite “byyyeeeee.” Like me, she managed neither a real conversation nor a real workout.

Cell phones seem made for 21st century America. A marketer’s dream, they are both fashionable and indispensable. Yet as our country runs headlong into economic globalization and relational isolation, we have yet to invent a better symbol of our fragmented, apprehensive discontent. At a time when we are increasingly aware of our loneliness and need for intimacy, we are also strangely comforted by distance, fearful of attack and skeptical of vulnerability. No wonder caller ID is a standard feature.

Cell phones are nearly impossible to resist. They are affordable, convenient and democratic (ringtones are an expression of individuality – it has gotten this bad). They save time and increase access – I talk to my parents now more than I did when I lived with them.

But not everything is peachy:

Cell phones convince us we can do two things at once when in fact they dilute both. It is impossible to do anything excellently while on the phone, for one is neither “here” nor “there.”

Cell phones are inherently anti-community (much less a vehicle of global community), for we are not with anybody while using them. Worse, the fundamental appeal of the cell phone (communication in absentia) is also its nightmare: because you are perpetually within reach, you can hide from the world, but you cannot run.

With people always reachable, our face-to-face moments are cheapened. Henri Nouwen reminds us that absence perfects relationships, for we need to be removed from others in order to fully appreciate them in person. Chronic accessibility ensures we never get that chance. (It’s like the old song: “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”)

Today’s conversations also lack presence – that urgent, transformational sense of relating to another person with mutual undivided attention. We no longer need to dwell on what is said, remember what errands to run or think about what to bring, because we’re not punished for forgetting.

Is it really a luxury to not have to remember? Is not our choice to remember – to dwell on something – an expression of love? Or a pulse?

Frighteningly, Americans seem okay with this. Cell phones are not the problem of course; they merely provide a way to experience the illusions of connectivity and self esteem (i.e., an active in-box) without the risk and effort of cultivating a genuine relationship.

Perhaps loneliness is the point.

Isolation is very American. Our founders kept going west in the hopes that they wouldn’t encounter anybody. Today, we pay extra for tinted windows, high-fences, security systems and gated “mini-estates” in the hills. Our 18th century foreign policy: “Don’t tread on me.” Today’s foreign policy: “Don’t mess with us.”

There are consequences:

  • My children do not really know what a porch swing is; to slink into a creaky swing in the early evening and watch people go by.
  • A couple I know lives in a newer neighborhood designed without sidewalks. In order to visit I must walk in the middle of the street, at the mercy of a barrage of commuters.
  • “Living areas” in modern homes now face the back yard instead of the street.
  • It is now possible to conduct a month’s worth of business, bill-paying and shopping…without encountering a single person.

The benefits of cell phones are clear. But in this wholesale adoption I am reminded that Americans are both fearful of intimacy, yet disgusted by the legacy of self-isolation – prisons are gated communities, too. Lacking a solution, we now occupy a restless middle ground that is uncomfortable when not conversing, yet wary of great conversation. Like having a cell phone.

Jay Pope is a psychology professor at Fresno Pacific University. He is also a therapist at Link Care Center in Fresno, where he treats a variety of psychological disorders, specializing in treating pastors and missionaries.

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