Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.

In Da’ Club

The title of a thumpin’ Fiddy Cent track.

It’s well known that adolescents place great importance on fitting into groups. It’s less well known that we never outgrow our need for affiliation. Our happiness isn’t contingent on being in da’ club, but in clubs, as the following experiences have recently reminded me.

Cycling up and down Washington State’s mountains. The roads we cycle routinely attract motorcycle and car clubs. No motorized vehicles for ten minutes then whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—twenty five Miatas, Nissan Cubes, or Christian Harley riders. Interesting how special interest groups form around a common interest—like climbing mountains on bicycles—or by driving a common car or motorcycle.

Working out at the Y. The Y is teeming with clubs including traditional aerobics, yoga, water aerobics, Masters swimming, 5:30a.m. basketball, spinning, and the retiree coffee klatsch.

Reading a Sojourners Magazine interview with Rebecca Barrett-Fox who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Westboro “Baptist Church” which just protested at our state capitol and local high school. Here’s the relevant excerpt: SojournersDid the actual church service resemble mainstream Christian worship? Barret-Fox—I saw a lot of circling the wagons, with sermons about things like Noah and the flood and how only eight people got on the ark. This church is the ark, so if you’re a part of this church you’re getting on. The sermons are actually very typical of themes addressed in Calvinist teaching: questions of how you know that you are in or how you know that they are out. Sojourners—So the attraction is the appeal of being part of the “in group.” Barret-Fox—Exactly. And I could see the attractiveness of that in a world that is fragmented and scary, especially if you are not okay with doubt or gray areas.

Westboro isn’t a spiritual community, it’s a sociological one. Members have distinct identities—chosen hate mongers. The hate-filled rhetoric, signage, and protests are shared experiences that reinforce a distinct group mindset. Barret-Fox adds: . . . church members create a culture that makes it uncomfortable to leave, and that becomes a high hurdle. They’ll take you off the church rolls, so you are excommunicated, but it amounts to more than simply excommunication from church services; it is de facto shunning because, as one member has said, “We don’t have time to talk to people who aren’t part of the church.”

I’m not the clubber that more extraverted peeps like the GalPal are—church council club, Spanish book club, and a coffee klatsch among others. I have a small group of friends I run with a few mornings each week (known affectionately as the Baboons, after a homeless woman yelled angrily at us “You look like a bunch of baboons!” while we were running shirtless on a hot summer morning on 4th Street) and another that I cycle with a few evenings each week for half of the year. Add that to my list of oddities, the bulk of my clubbing takes place at between 7 and 24 miles per hour.

Suburban neighborhoods—where I’ve spent too much of my life—conspire against community. There’s the occasional neighborhood garage sale or July 4th potluck, but suburbanites are usually stuck driving to fitness centers, grocery stores, post offices, and the bulk of their small groups activities. We need more urban planning that promotes community—with walking and bike trails, parks, and small accessible stores and service providers.

Once safely ensconced in a group most teens forget about what it feels like to be on the outside. Too often, we don’t outgrow that either. One thing I’ve always admired about Betrothed is she’s always conscious of people who are new to church or a social gathering and she goes out of her way to introduce herself and talk to them. The world is a tad more humane and friendly as a result of her presence.

Once securely in a group, we tend to adopt specific behaviors to signal that we’re “in da’ club”. At my Iron-distance triathlon in late August, there will be a ginormous merchandise village at which nearly everyone of the 3,000 participants will load up on t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, visors, and all things fitness to “signal” they are “in da’ club”. Dig the sweatshirt—I am an Ironperson, you’re not. (To which the ambivalent clubber in me says, “Big whoop. So you’re well-to-do, over-exercise, and probably suffer from early onset narcissism.)

At Lutheran churches we sometimes signal we’re “in da’ club” by referencing all things Garrison Keiler and Norwegian. Numb to the fact that “inside references or jokes” make newcomers who aren’t Scandinavian feel less than full members of the community.

Self-important academics (sorry for the redundancy) are especially skilled at drawing circles around their clubs which are usually tied to specific disciplines. Among other methods, they create and use elaborate terms and acronyms that leave outsiders wondering exactly what the hell they’re talking about.

We should acknowledge our need for group affiliation and build neighborhoods that promote the formation and success of small groups. We need more people like my Better Half who are especially conscious of those not “in da club”. And we would be well served by reflecting more regularly on the ways our clubs sometimes exclude others.