I Want My AT&T: Cell Phone Dependence and the Collapse of Interpersonal Communication
I left my phone at home on the charger today, and I'm not happy about it. My cell must remain on my person at all times, or I become slightly anxious. At times like these, I wonder to myself, "Self? What should I be doing right now? Oh, that's right, I'm supposed to be doing copious amounts of nothing on my cell phone. Thanks, Self." This will occur roughly 58 times from now until I get home and check my irrelevant, non-essential text messages. When did I become so reliant on that stupid little thing?
I am no doubt one of the most ardent cell phone junkies currently respirating (I am consistently way over on my monthly data plan), and sometimes I wonder whether I control my cell phone, or if, perhaps, it might be the other way around… An ominous possibility to be sure and one that bears investigation.
The Smartphone Revolution
Cell phones have morphed from a luxury device into a perceived necessity within a very short period of time, especially among the younger generations. I’m a relatively young man, but most of my life, to this point, was spent in the pre-ubiquitous cell phone usage period of the late 1980’s, the 1990’s, and the early part of this century. I can distinctly remember when cell phones were just that: portable phones that were used to place and receive telephone calls. This seemed like a fantastically simple innovation at the time, but the Smartphone revolution, replete with thousands of apps and stock functions, transformed the cell phone from a convenience into an integral part of life in modern society.
According to recent studies conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Smartphone ownership has increased among seemingly every demographic sampled. In an article written in March entitled "America Smartens Up: Smartphones Now Officially Kings of the Mobile World," David Mielach writes, “Among men and women of all ages, incomes, ethnicities, geographic locations and education levels Smartphone ownership increased since last May.” The largest increase over the past year has come from those in the lowest tax bracket. In households making less than $30,000, Smartphone ownership is up 12%. It doesn’t matter one’s gender, age, race, or income bracket, consumers are flooding the telecommunications market to get in on the fun.
I suppose the omnipresence of cell phones is nothing more than the inevitable result of a century clearly marked by technological advances and self indulgence. Aside from thermonuclear explosives, mass genocide, and global climate change, the 20th century’s claims to fame include the television, the radio, and the Internet. Surely, all of these devices serve pragmatic functions, but they were invented to make our lives more convenient and entertaining. They shrink the world in ways unimaginable at the turn of the previous century.
Our brains tell us that we love these inventions, that we need them. They provide for safe and efficient travel, they entertain us with our favorite audio and visual programming, and they make instant global communication and research possible with the click of a mouse. But there may be a more sinister force at work within our culture that serves to increase our dependence upon these “advancements” to improve our quality of life. Let's take a quick look at a few Smartphone usage figures shall we?
- There are nearly 100 million Smartphones in the United States
- The most popular Smartphone activity is texting, then internet browsing and finally, playing games. The fundamental purpose of the Smartphone (having a verbal conversation) doesn't even make the top three.
- 90% of Smartphone owners use their phone throughout the day.
Smartphones have made communication easy, convenient, and cheap. But our culture has simultaneously fallen prey to brevity, laziness, and isolation. We've willfully eradicated the verbal and replaced it strictly with the visual. Texting a snide remark during a rousing game of “Words With Friends” doesn’t compare to the intellectual and emotional bond forged while playing “Scrabble” in your parents’ living room with family and friends. Simply put, Smartphones don’t heighten our communication; they detract from it by placing a premium on the virtual rather than the tangible.
iPhones, Androids, and Blackberries all have a wonderful component to add to modern communication; they make multi-tasking fun and convenient. Searching the web for “Cut the Rope” strategies, while playing “Cut the Rope,” while texting your high score in “Cut the Rope,” while receiving push notifications from “Cut the Rope” is a blast, believe me! The problem is that Smartphones have become the primary medium through which we express ourselves. We rely on constant input and output from our mobiles.
How often are you at a restaurant, bar, concert, sporting event, or family celebration where you glance around the crowd and notice that the majority of people are fiddling with their phones? Personally, I have been at concerts where I have had to force myself not to text about how much I was enjoying the show because it was actually cancelling out that very enjoyment! It just seems to me that we are all in such a hurry to share in a vast, often anonymous community, no matter how benign or banal, that we fail to truly live within our experiences.
How’s this for a breakdown in interpersonal communication? I recently read an article that claimed that 1/3rd of people over the age of 18 have broken up with a significant other via text, email, or Facebook (all available in the smartphone interface)! If this figure isn’t a shock to the system, it should be. 33% of people think that it is acceptable to end a romantic engagement by typing a dozen characters on a 3 inch screen in a 20 second time frame. I get it; it’s easy, but so cruel and marked by such an ice cold cowardice that it seems impossible for even the most morally bankrupt person to engage in such an act… yet it seems as though we do (at least a third of us anyway).
Since when was text messaging meant for anything more than a dinner suggestion or an ETA? Who dictated that gutlessness was an appropriate mode of behavior when broaching an especially uncomfortable topic? Don’t we owe it to one another to keep certain aspects of interpersonal relationships sacred?
So I suggest that we become more observant of our dependence upon our Smartphones as they relate to modes of communication. Communication is so much more than an invite to a virtual party on Facebook to be attended in the isolation of your home while watching television. True communication isn’t easy, and it isn’t perfunctory. It’s self-reflexive, and it tells us something about ourselves. It advances our character and increases our accountability. It is the key to forming our identity by placing us squarely in a community of our friends and our enemies, our colleagues and our bosses, our children and our parents.
I shudder to think about how Smartphones and social media in general are affecting this generation of adolescents, but the most positive thing we can do is to express our sincere emotions in a traditional, vulnerable forum that is comprised of more than just an emoticon.