My first experience with a mobile phone was neither in my hand nor in a car; it was on a plane. Of course as a science geek, I knew of mobile phones practically since they became widely available to the public in the 80’s. As early as first grade, in 1990, one girl whose dad owned and operated a Colorado theme park for kids then called The North Pole was rumored to have a “car phone.” For those of you too young to remember, a car phone was a big, clunky device that a select few elite rich carried around in leather cases that looked like a cross between an old-fashioned doctor’s bag and a briefcase. If you had one, it either meant you were a successful traveling salesman or someone really important, like a California personal injury attorney.
We all know how the cellphone industry progressed from there: The quasi-Vietnam military-in-the-jungle-fighting-Charlie-looking Motorola “brick,” was made infamous among my generation by the teen sitcom “Saved By The Bell.” The show’s stereotypical rich white kid Zack (Mark-Paul Harry Gosselaar) used it to make sneaky calls out of his locker. When I was a kid, that idea of being able to order a pizza from one’s locker was a farfetched fantasy. About ten years later, when I started high school, about one or two or just a few kids out of over 1,600 had a cell phone. In a couple cases, they had one because their parents had just gone through a bad divorce, and the dad bought the kid a Nokia so he or she could call him, even if mom didn’t want them to have unsupervised contact. Toward mid- high school, the idea that kids should have phones was catching on, fueling ongoing the epidemic of upper middle class helicopter parents who deal with their own deep-seated anxiety issues by using mobile technology to achieve the illusion of control over their kids. And after the Columbine shootings, high school kids across the U.S. started winning the battle with their parents for a personal cell phone because it then became a “safety issue.”
I wasn’t a late adopter, but thankfully I wasn’t in that first wave of kids owning phones. I wouldn’t have done as well in high school. The well-documented addictive property of text messaging – pleasure or other strong emotion through intermittent, random reinforcement – may prime the still developing brain for future addictive behavior and maladaptive workplace communication styles. I’ve heard from more than one corporate manager: If what you need to tell me is more than a line or two, then we probably need to talk, in-person.
When I first started using cellphones, especially smartphones, my naturally avoidant (though improving rapidly in this area) personality latched onto this mode of communication as a crutch for my fear to face people. What reminded me of this and provided even greater insight this week was spending a few days not carrying around a cellphone. Without being constantly reliant on devices, one has to live how mankind has always lived – by sticking to schedules, resolving conflict face-to-face, and conducting one item of business at a time.
Doing so for a few days provided some much needed stress relief, despite a myriad of stressful things happening in my life. People being able to contact you at any instant and the status quo expectation that you immediately respond to their needs may well be more counterproductive than useful. In essence, we give our devices the power to be the tail that wags the dog. Does the instant communication lifestyle give us more control over our lives, or less?
Try putting away your phone for a few days and see what you think.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke