Beastly little things

October 25, 2012

I may have mentioned in this space before that I am under some pressure to get a cell phone. I have resisted for years, and certainly have no desire to have one, but the question has come up again, so I’d like to reflect briefly on my concerns, and solicit advice of those willing to offer it.

Of all the reasons that have been given me for having a cell phone, only one carries weight in my own mind: in case of emergency, it would give our children’s caregiver a reliable way to reach me while I am at work. True, I have a desk job, and amidst all the desk clutter is a telephone, but sometimes I am in the lab, and sometimes I am out and about, and at those times there is currently no way for someone to reach me, and there is no-one else whom the caregiver can call.

Yet there are a number of reasons why I am reluctant to have one.

First, I fear cell phone creep. It is one thing to say that you’re getting one only in case of emergencies, but another to confine its use to emergencies. I actually used to have a cell phone in my car when I was travelling long distances in the winter; it was in my glove box in case I went into a ditch and needed to call someone, but nobody knew the phone number (not even me), and so there was no problem with creep. Having a phone so that others can call me is another situation entirely: creep will be hard to avoid. Emergencies get defined down.

I suppose a deeper reason why I do not like cell phones is the reason many people do like them: they keep one always connected. I am a person whose well-being is fostered by doses of solitude, and I treasure those relatively rare occasions on which I can “disappear”, maybe just for half an hour, in order to be quiet and think about things, or to listen attentively to something beautiful, or to pray. That sense of being alone, well and truly, gives me space to breathe, and is unfailingly refreshing. Whether it is actually important for me to be “unreachable” at those times is, I must admit, debatable, but it feels important. I feel as though the weight of that phone in my pocket will be a burden on my mind.

On the other hand, who am I kidding? It is not as though dozens of people are clamouring to reach me; my social life is almost entirely domestic. It probably would be feasible to restrict the phone-aware social circle to my wife, our children’s caregivers, and my in-laws. Is it churlish to inconvenience them on account of my rather vague, and perhaps rather selfish, reservations?

But mention of our children raises another set of issues. There is now quite a lot of evidence about how digital media, and cell phones in particular, have a powerful, and, to my mind, powerfully deleterious, effect on the lives of teenagers. This is something that people of my age, who did not grow up with this technology, probably do not fully understand. Cell phones, particularly those with “texting” capabilities (which these days is pretty much all of them) have made it very difficult for teenagers to remove themselves from their social circles, to “turn off” the peer pressure, to leave that world outside and simply be alone or with their families. It used to be that one came home from school and, apart from a few phone calls perhaps (on a phone shared with others), one was at home with one’s family until morning. Now one’s friends are always potentially present: whether one is riding in the back seat of a car, or whether one is in bed at midnight, the “texts” keep flowing. This is bad enough at any age, but for teenagers, for whom peer social pressures are already so powerful and dominating, it is really very troubling. How will these young people have time and space for quiet reflection, or for prayer, or for simply being themselves, embodied, attentive to those around them? How much more difficult will it be for parents to guide their children through those often difficult years when there is no time or place in which the parents and children are really together, to the exclusion of others?

And there is, of course, also the issue of addiction to “texting” and other social media. They are not called Crackberries for nothing. This is a concern not only for me as a parent, but also for myself, for I know that I would not be immune to the Pavlovian lure of the beep.

The issue of social media and children is not the topic of this post, but I raise it in this context because, although our children are not teenagers, they will, God willing, be so one day, and I feel that I will be better positioned to moderate the use of these technologies if I am not myself a user of them. I will be able to show them, by my example, that one does not need them, and that in fact there are things to be gained from not having them. It can be argued, of course, that there is a middle ground between abstinence and addiction, and that it would be better to model the middle ground. This may be true. My feeling is that it’s better not to let the foot in the door. This may be true.

At the end of the day my concerns about cell phones, smartphones, and so forth circle around two related points: first, I am concerned about the way these devices can potentially alter our lives at a fairly deep level, from erasing (at least in principle) our solitude, to changing the way we relate to our friends and family, to mediating our very experience of the world; and second, I am concerned that once one crosses the Rubicon to join the cell phone culture, it is very hard to get back.


I am interested to hear, if anyone cares to offer, opinions about these matters. If you, like me, do not have a cell phone (and I am sure there must be at least four or five such people left), why not? If you do, how do you feel about it? If you are a parent, how do you manage your child’s access to technologies like this? Do you?



21 Responses to “Beastly little things”

  1. Erin Burrell Says:

    I completely agree with your points -both about the likelihood of creeping communication (not to mention creepy!) and about the intrusion of external life into kids lives in an earlier and more pervasive way. I started out having a cell only for work and am now firmly tied to it. Unlike you, I sometimes need to recharge by reaffirming my sense of connection, so it serves that function. But i also notice how difficult it is for me to unplug and be away from it, and how refreshing it is when I do that at times. So I think your caution is truly reasonable.

    I think intention is a big part of determining how it is going to be used. If you limit who the number is shared with and don’t start communicating widely by text, it’s unlikely people are going to start doing so with you. Especially if you are not reliable at writing back. Or you can turn off the phone on weekends etc and people eventually learn that it’s not a reliable way to reach you.

    I don’t have kids, but I do think the modeling that we do for them is instrumental, and realistically they are going to be living in a world of handheld devices and torrents of communication. It’s a useful lens through which to look at my own use patterns – how would I feel if I child I loved was also using their phone in the way I am?

    Thanks for the post! And get a cell so I can text you 🙂

  2. godescalc Says:

    I managed to hold out until late 2008 when I wound up living somewhere with no landline and thus had to succumb. It does feel a little weird to go without it, even for fifteen minutes, which is not a good sign. Also I’ve stopped wearing a watch. My current one has no internet capacity, which is probably for the best; there’s very little temptation to ignore the people whose physical company I enjoy (or endure) in order to twiddle with my phone endlessly. (If there’s a laptop and a wifi available this is not always the case.)

    • cburrell Says:

      A phone lacking internet capacity would, as you say, do much to reduce the temptation to play with it. On the other hand, it could also be quite useful at times — for maps, and that sort of thing. It’s the “texting” that strikes me as both unusually disruptive and addictive while also being pointless (in the sense of redundant).

  3. Douglas Says:

    Interesting post. My wife and I share a cell phone for emergency purposes and for last minute grocery list additions. It is much easier to limit one’s cell phone use if one gets a “dumb” phone instead of a “smart” phone (e.g., texting is a pain in the arse if one has to type the number 2 three times in order to get to the letter c). Also, one can usually turn off texting and data services on a phone. My dad and I share a plan to get the discount, and we have these services turned off on our phones. It does puzzle some of my friends who learn I’ve had VOIP phone service at home for a decade and still have comparatively Luddite cell phone service.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Douglas. That’s a really good point about ease of use. My wife can tap out texts on her iPhone almost as fast as I can type on a regular keyboard, but I once tried to use an inexpensive phone to send a “text” and the experience was, for the reasons you note, attractively dissuasive.

  5. Christina Says:

    ironically, typing this reply out on my new smartphone…

    I actually agree with you entirely on all of your points. I got rid of the blackberry in 2009 and went back to a shared emergency phone.

    Unfortnately, Saskatchewan is cutting the network that supports those phones so it was 4G smartphone or bust if you want to leave Regina. I’m on the road a lot. I’m liking the GPS function, the fact that it auto syncs with my calendar and address book, can access work database and best of all, I can stream podcasts or music onto my car stereo on those long drives (esp since no radio signal in some rural areas).

    Doubt this helps you decide though….
    if it’s any consolation, I’ve been calling you on your landline frequently to no avail lately on my smartphone….


    • cburrell Says:

      Here’s a thought: if I had one of those smart phones I’d probably respond to comments more quickly!

      I remember you saying, at the time, how it was easy to become absorbed in all the social networking stuff when you had a Crackberry. It’s a temptation I could do without.

      The GPS capability on these fancy phones is one of the most attractive “gee-whiz” aspects of them. GPS is an amazing achievement, and to have a working receiver that one can hold in one’s hand is little short of astounding. (Did you know that GPS is one of the few — or even the only? — “everyday” technology that requires general relativity in order to work well? To achieve the resolution of modern devices the fact that time passes more slowly on the surface of the earth than it does at the satellite has to be taken into account! Isn’t that great?)

      Your mention of podcasts brings up another side of my deliberations: namely, that my iPod is starting to malfunction and will probably need to be replaced soon.

  6. I’m very much of the same mind as you, Craig, and can vouch for the fact that it’s possible to have one without getting very dependent on it. I’ve technically had one for…let’s see…probably somewhere around ten years now, but have never used it much at all. My wife jumped eagerly into the whole business because she loved the way it helped her keep in touch with our children, who were early-teens to young-adult ages at the time. She coaxed me into getting one when I was about to go on a long drive alone. For years I almost never used it, and almost never had it with me except in the car. Since then I’ve gone through several phones, usually getting half-unwillingly upgraded because someone else in the family was getting a new one and wanted to get rid of their current one with a clear conscience. I believe it was no earlier than three years ago that I finally sent a text message. (If I recall correctly, my first effort in that line was an attempt to enter into the contemporary spirit with a message to my wife along the lines of “u r so hott!!”)

    My usage of it has crept up over time, but is still very limited. It helps that there just aren’t that many people who need or want to get in touch with me by phone. I’d say that 90% or more of my calls and texts are strictly functional ones between my wife and me: “I’m just leaving,” “Where are you?” etc. Texts are cumbersome, even with my latest phone (hand-me-down from my wife when she got an iPhone), which has a little keyboard. Voice is unreliable and low-quality. Both those facts discourage any further use.

    I’m in charge of a small thinly-stretched IT group and there are a number of things only I know how to do, so my boss and co-workers have the number, but they haven’t abused it.

    I am quite certain, however, that all of that would change if I got an iPhone or Android phone, which my boss is urging me to do because we need to support our software on the dang things. I have to say, they are pretty slick little devices with some amazing capabilities. I second what godescalc said about a computer and wifi and know what would happen if I had net access more or less all the time and everywhere.

    As regards your children, well, I don’t have any advice. I’ll just say good luck trying to find that balance. This mirrors the struggle we had with television, and later with the Internet even in the dialup days when our children were growing up. I don’t think there’s a definite answer or single best practice.

    • cburrell Says:

      Nice to hear that you have more or less been able to keep your use of the things under control. I am fortunate to have a job for which carrying a phone is not a requirement; I know that many people are not so lucky.

      For the longest time I had no idea how to send a “text”, and I was mildly impressed by those who were such adepts. But then I discovered that, if you have a fancy phone, “texting” (and the quotes betray the fact that I cannot get used to this lingo) is no more difficult than pushing a button and then typing your message. That took the sheen off. Unlike you, the two or three “texts” which I have sent have all been grammatically correct. Punctuation is a real nuisance on those things; it’s not surprising to me that people cut corners when using them.

  7. Vince Says:

    Sorry, this is completely off topic but I thought you might get a kick out of this:

  8. cburrell Says:

    Heh. That is pretty good.

    It reminds me a little of this post, which used to rack up hundreds of views at this time of year, but which this year seems to have fallen on hard times.

  9. KathyB Says:

    I don’t have a cell phone, for all the reasons you listed. I have occasionally missed calls from my son’s school as a result, but none of them have been urgent. I do worry about missing something important.

    One additional reason I don’t get one is in protest against some behaviours I’ve seen in cell phone users that I find to be rude. So, if you do get a cell phone, please refrain from the following:

    1)If you are invited into somebody’s home to celebrate a life milestone, please do not pull out your cellphone to text, surf the internet, or play Angry Birds. Please don’t let any of your children who have cell phones do it either.

    2)If you own a cellphone, please remember that it is a phone, not a license to lateness. I have a few cell-using friends who refuse to commit to anything until absolutely the last minute, and then when they finally will give me a time and place to meet up, will show up significantly late, and then be annoyed at me, since my lack of cell phone prevented them from contacting me to tell me that they were changing the plan at the last minute. (Although lateness with a genuine reasonable excuse is always forgivable).

    As a final caveat, there is one man among my acquiantance, who seems to receive several phone calls daily from his wife reminding him to do some small chore that she’s already asked of him.

  10. cburrell Says:

    You make excellent points, Kathy. The way some cell phone users act is rude. I think this is mostly attributable to the addictive properties the phones have: when the dang thing beeps, people just have to look at it. Regular “land-lines” are like that too, but at least they don’t follow one everywhere. Anyway, I touched obliquely on these points by linking to Dr. Boli; thanks for fleshing it out.

  11. Janet Says:

    Finally replying–I have a cellphone that I bought in the grocery store and I use it about the way Maclin says he uses his. I do occasionally write email from it, but not often. I text my boss because it’s about the only way to get hold of him. Sometimes I text my youngest daughter or my 17 year old daughter when we have to make arrangements very quickly.

    Most of the time, I keep my ringer turned off, so there’s no chance anyone can bother me when I want to be alone, which is about 98% of the time. 😉 Of course, we don’t have cellphone service at our house or anywhere within 10 miles of it, so that helps.

    About children:
    There weren’t any cellphones when my kids were young, so of course they never saw me use one. As soon as they had jobs, they got them–years before I did. (Of course, even my mother had one years before I did.) So, I’m not sure that your not having one will keep them from getting one as soon as they can.

    BTW, if my husband sent me the message Maclin sent, I would just assume it was someone with the wrong number and delete it. 🙂


  12. cburrell Says:

    There weren’t any cellphones when I was a kid (which is probably — I don’t want to make any insinuations — probably roughly when you had kids) and so I really have no feel for them, nor for how kids today use them. I am going almost entirely from what I read.

    I did talk to one of my god-daughters about this issue. She’s 16. She had a cellphone, but her parents took it away for some reason. Interestingly, she didn’t seem to think it impacted her social life much. Sure, she missed out on “texts”, but if something was being planned her friends would phone her at home. That was reassuring.

    If my wife sent me a message like that Maclin sent, I would assume her phone had fallen into the hands of one of her stroke-victim patients.

  13. Vince Says:

    There are news reports of teens sending hundreds of texts a day, even staying up way too late in order to text, then being too tired for school the next day because they didn’t get enough sleep. I do think that kids will want them by the time they’re teenagers, regardless of whether or not their parents have them. In 10 years, who knows what this sort of technology will be like, so I think it’s difficult for parents of young children to plan ahead for these things. I’d recommend surrounding your home with a Faraday cage. 🙂

  14. Janet Says:

    Of course, by the time that Craig’s kids are teenagers, people might be laughing with nostalgia at the idea of a cellphone.


  15. cburrell Says:

    Vince, I believe that is the best idea I’ve heard so far.

    Janet, you’re making me nervous.

  16. Janet Says:

    Oh good. After making people laugh, making people nervous is my favorite thing.


  17. cburrell Says:

    Unless maybe you meant that people will have seen the folly of their ways and simply discarded their cell phones en masse?

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