Leave it to existentialist philosophers to contradict each other and almost make the same point.
It was Jean-Paul Sartre who said, Hell is other people and his contemporary Albert Camus who said, Hell is alone. These French philosophers of angst were saying something rather simple: People—you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em. It seems to me that in our digital age, with its hyper-connectivity, we are simultaneously together and alone, bearing the burdens of both and enjoying the benefits of neither.
Today, we are always within just a few touches on a number pad from anyone in the world. Email, Facebook, MySpace, and other technological marvels allow us to “keep in touch” with people we don’t even know and have never met face-to-face. Indeed, we need not ever be alone, what with the close to two billion cell phones on Planet Earth. The average American spends over seven hours on his cell phone (according to one study, men use more minutes than women). No one really knows how many emails are sent daily, but the most reliable estimates come in around 2.5 billion every 24-hour period.
Indeed, we are “in touch,” but has something been lost despite the wonder of the iPhone? Is it not, for instance, a bit strange to see people walking down the street talking to no one in particular? Does not that thing sticking out of their ear seem like a growth that needs to be removed? And how do you like sitting at Peet’s or Starbucks waiting for a friend and having to hear the business deal being cut by some aspiring broker as he barks orders into his tiny phone?
With the ever-presence of everyone to everyone, no one is ever really present. And what we should call phonus interruptus occurs at every turn: People take calls at the movie theater. They skip out of meetings, and they even hurry from a worship service, phone to ear, whispering, Just a minute. . . On more than one occasion, I have been in a conversation with someone in our church who is expressing very real pain and consternation only to have our time together interrupted by the glow of yet another text message. I sit and wait, and then our conversation continues. Christine Rosen wrote a definitive essay on these things called “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves” (The New Atlantis, Summer 2004). In it, she said that digital communication encourages us to connect individually, but disconnect socially, ceding, in the process, much that was civil and civilized.
Currently about 76 percent of us Americans have cell phones and 80 percent of us have email addresses. Yes, most of us use and enjoy these and other digital technologies. Cell phones are, in a word, cool. The future is upon us. Dick Tracy had his wrist phone, Maxwell Smart his shoe phone, and Batman his Bat-phone. In comic book and television lore, the phone was a symbol of power, and now almost everyone is empowered. You have your Blackberry. It is very convenient to shop for an Italian restaurant on your iPhone while driving through Flagstaff. It is miraculous that you can call a friend in Africa—and she’ll answer. And it is helpful to call on the way home to see if there’s anything you can pick up for dinner. But let us use these and other technologies to our benefit, not to our harm. To this end I offer four suggestions:
First, dare to turn it off. Yes, turn it off. You’ll still be safe, and you’ll not miss the party. Question: Have you checked your email, received a phone call, sent a text-message, or changed the channel while reading this brief essay? Have you interrupted dinner with your family to “see” who is calling? Do you “spend” more “minutes” on your phone or in your Bible? I dare you: turn it off. Be the master of your phone and your email and your television. Let it wait until later.
Second, cultivate the joy of reading. Many are calling ours a post-literate society. As historian Daniel Borstin put it, “Our society is particularly ingenious at thinking up alternatives to the book.” While our computers and cell phones will amuse us, reading trains us to think. Reading teaches us how to interact with ideas. Reading the right material will sharpen our minds. Boorstin calls the nonreader “self-handicapped. . . . A person who doesn’t read books is only half-alive.”
Third, dare to disappoint. Does not every email conversation drift into cyber-oblivion sooner or later? Why not make it sooner? Dare to not answer emails that don’t need to be answered. Dare to disappoint someone who sends you a question requiring a lengthy response.
Fourth, enjoy the lost art of conversation. As Christene Rosen put it,
“Conversation (as opposed to “talk”) is to genuine sociability what courtship (as opposed to “hooking up”) is to romance. And the technologies that mediate these distinctions are important: the cell phone exchange of information is a distant relative of formal conversation, just as the Internet chat room is a far less compelling place to become intimate with another person than a formal date. In both cases, however, we have convinced ourselves as a culture that these alternatives are just as good as the formalities—that they are, in fact, improvements upon them.”
A week ago Lisa and I, along with another couple, gave a dinner party for our two sons who had finished high school. Fourteen friends joined together for dinner. They ate and laughed and talked and ate and laughed. And talked. When the eating was done, the parents began washing the dishes. The students sat at the table and talked. As far as I could tell, they were having a real conversation. I didn’t hear a cell phone ring, and I didn’t notice anyone texting a friend. When we “grown-ups” were done with the dishes, we sat in the living room and talked. And the buzz of the high-schoolers continued… and continued…and continued. It was a very good sound.