I am twenty-seven years old, and I don't have a cell phone. I've never had one. This comes as a surprise to many people. After all, the vast majority of Americans -- low-income, high-income, white, black, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim -- all have cell phones. It's impossible to live in America without a cell phone. Right?
One might now expect a point-by-point analysis of how feasible it is to live a healthy, productive life without a mobile telecommunications device in this modern age, but this column isn't an attempt to be smart. Suffice it to say that hundreds of millions of people lived for thousands of years without them, so such an explanation seems unnecessary. Humans can exist apart from cell phones. Nor is my rationale for bucking the cell phone trend merely a manifestation of rebellious antics, though that might not be such a bad thing (as I'll explain). The fact is that when it comes to cell phones, I am deeply afraid.
Is it radiation? Perhaps a little, but not really. I certainly don't trust the cell phone manufacturers' safety claims any more than I do the cigarette companies' of the 1950s, but the fact is that there are a lot worse things for the human body than an occasionally heated temple, and using a headset is a cheap and easy way to alleviate that problem completely.
Is it the plight of African workers, many of them children, who earn virtually nothing, digging for coltan in the war-torn Congo? Sadly, no. It's absolutely horrible that our demand for cell phones has harmed Africa in yet another way, but I don't honestly think the plight of those workers would be substantially different if coltan didn't exist in the first place. Africa's problems run far deeper than that.
Is it that the purchase will be obsolete in a matter of weeks? No. I am writing this on a six-year-old laptop computer that was obsolete in one way or another almost as soon as I bought it.
Is it the price? Not particularly. Communications plans are definitely overpriced, but I can afford them just the same. (Fortunately, Skype offers the same functionality for a fraction of the cost.)
Is it that I am just a stubborn Luddite? I'll admit to being stubborn on occasion, but given that I write software designed to run on cell phones, I'm hardly a Luddite.
"Ha!" you might say. "A cell phone software executive who doesn't have a cell phone! The hypocrisy!" It's tempting to jump to such a conclusion, but then again, it's only part of the story, and so it's not quite right.
Sometime in 2004, I was standing in the Park Street subway station in Boston waiting for a Green Line train to arrive. A number of other people were on the platform waiting as well. Some were doing nothing, and some were reading books, but one woman was talking on the phone one minute and then typing an e-mail furiously on her BlackBerry the next, completely oblivious to the rest of the world. The only thought I had as I tried to keep my revulsion in check was that I never wanted to turn into one of those people, a slave to technology.
Those people are everywhere now. The man walking down the street outside my window as I write this is one of them, and many of the people reading these words are probably among them, too. It gives a new kind of meaning to the phrase, "the ignorant masses," when you realize that the masses are in fact so ignorant that they are too busy to pay attention to what is going on literally right in front of their eyes.
Drugs and alcohol evoke similar fears in my mind -- fears that collectively involve what happens if and when one is caught unaware -- perhaps because for as long as I can remember, what has been going on in front of my own eyes has been too serious to ignore. Having a mentally ill sibling will do that to you. This is not to say that I spend every waking moment worrying about my brother and my parents who take care of him -- though lately, the amount of time has been steadily escalating -- but rather that being aware of a single serious issue that directly impacts one's life has the effect of making one aware of many more such issues.
If I had a cell phone, I think I would find it difficult to take life seriously. A modern cell phone would give me access to a news feed of the tooth-brushing habits of distant acquaintances I never even spoke with in high school classes I barely remember. By design, a cell phone would interrupt my thought process several times throughout the day. It would inundate me with information, including startling quantities of misinformation and disinformation, at all times, when I can already barely handle the amount of data I already come across daily. Even if only temporarily, a cell phone would make me forget more frequently what is important to me.
It's not that I'm against digital devices. I think my iPod Touch is a fantastic invention. When I need to use it as a phone I make an effort to find an open wireless signal and bring up Skype with a tap of my finger. Otherwise, I can listen to music, or if necessary, check my e-mail after making a similar concerted effort. I force myself to use the technology as a tool, because any other way, the technology (or more precisely, each company behind it) uses you.
The fact that cell phones are ubiquitous, and that we are consequently all pawns in venture capital-funded schemes for market domination, have changed us as a society. The United States had many problems in the 1960s, but its youth knew what was important. Even with a startling number of them on hard drugs, they protested war; they marched on Washington; they stood up for their beliefs. Our youth are so distracted now that they might as well be on hard drugs. At East Coast universities today, students compete to rack up awards while ignoring their peers of the same age dying abroad in two unjustified wars. In Silicon Valley, where anti-establishment sentiment used to lead students of all kinds to create brilliant innovations that would frighten the likes of I.B.M., there's no greater honor than flipping a "social game" that can suck up the attention of a hundred million people, steeping them further in ignorance about the problems that surround them.
That's a luxury I can't afford. Last week, over the protests of my parents, my brother was forcibly taken to the hospital again after local police decided that they didn't know how else to handle him. He is due in court in the coming weeks, and the State of Ohio is trying to take him away from my family in blatant defiance of a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision which prohibits them from doing so. I myself have a medical procedure scheduled for September that I'll have to pay for out of pocket because even with health care reform, entrepreneurs in California still don't qualify for group coverage under many circumstances. Meanwhile, at my day job, I'm trying to upend a multi-centi-billion dollar oligopoly responsible for needlessly taxing small businesses and consumers on virtually every purchase made in the U.S. economy (the credit card companies). It's hard to find employees because most everyone I've met in the Valley would rather get rich quick working for a company that has no business model and no real prospect of creating anything -- but might get acquired one day.
I've been accused more than once of being "too serious;" of making products that are "too useful." Yet the fact remains that I come from a four-person, middle-class, college-educated family that doesn't abuse alcohol or drugs, where all four members have very recently been threatened with arrest and/or placed into the back of a police car wearing handcuffs for obeying (my parents, attempting to exercise medical power of attorney over my brother), trying to uphold (me, informing the GSA of its violations of FISMA), or being unable to comprehend (my brother, for unintentionally disturbing our neighbors) the law.
Too serious? Too useful? Turn away from your screen and look around you; take out your earbuds and listen. If what you see and hear -- the constant drone of a spineless media's doublespeak; the lack of meaningful innovation for a full decade; the capital of normally frigid Russia evacuated due to uncontrollable fires; the rise of a political movement that has written xenophobia into law; the soaring popularity of recreational drugs that make you a "better" student; the wars; the collapsing state budgets; the fact that we are all "friends" when we don't know each other at all; the jails burgeoning with the mentally ill who have nowhere else to go -- if all of this and more doesn't remind you of your favorite dystopian novel, then you're not looking hard enough, because you're probably already looking at your cell phone again.
I am not. For all intents and purposes, it was luck that dictated that it should be Simon, and not me, that might be carted away from my family any day now. How should one deal with such a reality?
The way I deal with it is by making sure that the few people left paying attention know about it -- not to evoke pity, but to incite change -- and by doing something useful with the very gadgets that are slowly destroying us. I don't have a cell phone, because the day I ignore everything going on around me will be the day I die.
Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of FaceCash, a mobile payment system that he uses with an iPod Touch.
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