07/24/2013 10:46 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013

Life Without a Cellphone -- Part 3-A: Maslow Into Madness


Click here for Part 1 of this series and here for Part 2

Warning Re Part 3 -- Sections A, B, C:

The following texts contain a lot of words. They may also appear to be guilty of conjoined sins, self-indulgence and repetition, each likely to compound the other. To the latter charge I would object but to the former self-accusation I plead guilty -- even this warning is self-indulgent (especially this parenthetical remark and the clause that immediately precedes it). However, as in future parts of this series I will delve into both process of electronic shedding and ensuing experiences, I thought it might prove profitable to first catalog, below and in parts 3-B and 3-C, my state of mind at journey's outset. Such an exploration, a peering into one's own mind, with all its attendant silliness and flights of fancy, will naturally seem self-indulgent to an outsider -- which, of course, you are. In short, I urge you not to think of the multitudinous Part 3 as a lecture, but rather to take it simply for what it is: a guided tour.


In the 1940s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow began developing and propounding a hierarchy of human needs. The general idea was that certain needs must be at least mostly met before less urgent ones could be focused on -- with the physiological, of course, necessarily coming first. In this most urgent category Maslow included breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. The hierarchy as a whole is often depicted as a food-pyramid-like diagram, starting with the aforementioned physiological needs at the base level, and moving up, with decreasing urgency, to safety, love/belonging, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization and finally, at the top, when all else is taken care of, transcendence needs -- helping others fulfill their basic and higher-order needs.

And while there are many criticisms of Maslow's work and newer theories it must contend with, his hierarchy still proves useful as a framework, as a way of thinking about what is important to humans and in what order -- even if this order itself has never been uniformly stable. In any case, my purpose here is not to argue over Maslow's model, only to use and misuse it as a backdrop for the pseudo-pop-scientific-astrology-level musings I have in mind. Because, when I first began examining my cellphone use with a critical eye -- and when I say cellphone or phone or device I mostly mean smartphone but also sometimes communication device, internet, laptop, email and a whole host of other things, some not yet invented...category distinctions are fast evaporating -- what interested me was how the phone had entwined itself with, sometimes preempted, and often rearranged needs in many levels of Maslow's hierarchy. What follows, however, as I alluded to in my warning, is not theory, just the tracing of a mental trip.

My thoughts at the time:

What does it mean that the last thing I do before going to sleep and the first thing I do upon waking, before using the bathroom or eating or even drinking a cup of water, is check messages? That the first thought I might have in the morning, upon returning to the living, is "email." That before my eyes are even fully open, before I even know what I have thought, or even that I am thinking and not still dreaming, my arm might already be stretching out to clutch the device, a blind mechanical claw reaching for its e-doll, knowing precisely when to stop extending, when exactly to collapse fingers, the clasping springing open my eyes, the familiar feel against skin animating. And what does it mean that, when I finally do eat or drink or use the bathroom, the phone might tag along for those activities as well, might even prolong them, and so conveniently prolong my time with the device ("I can still use it, I'm eating," reasons the subconscious between increasingly spaced-out spoonfuls, as I take my interstitial electronic bites). How is this behavioral training, this reprioritization, rewiring my brain? Beyond the obvious, beyond dopamine and reward systems, beyond the fact that this behavior is self-reinforcing, that the more we do the above the more we will do the above in the future, what is changing? What does it mean that phones vibrate and ring and chirp alerts and otherwise interrupt intimate moments including the literal propagation of our species? What does it mean that when I aim to go to sleep I might get stuck on the device instead? Or that, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I might check messages rather than immediately try to fall asleep again? What does it mean that overnight guests get more than a little upset when I ask them to put their phones on silent before going to bed (in much the same way they would soon rage against me when I informed them I was giving up the cellphone)? This diminution of slumber, this imagined return to life in the veldt with lion-ic imminent threats all around creating a need for shut-eye with one electronic eye open at all times, what is this?

Now obviously haphazard sleep is not no sleep at all and food needs, e.g., are not considered wholly unmet simply because a phone is present or because the phone delays meal fruition, even if by a few hours; one can still achieve plenty in higher pyramid categories even with the cellphone present. People, however, genuinely do not seem able to move on to vital activities before they get their phone fix or to then engage in these vital activities without their digital security blanket in tow.

This might all seem inconsequential. After all, most people I run across, in their words and/or behavior, wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor. Most people I know seem to consider their ability to eat food of any quality or go without sustenance for long stretches of time to be a mark of flexibility and good-naturedness. Perhaps, to use freshman-undergrad-type thinking, these denials of physical needs, including denials related to our devices, are just part of a larger trivialization of one's humanity, a pulling away from the animal kingdom, a reach for immortality. And perhaps it is precisely this trivialization that enables our vital activities to be so easily compromised...but no one explained this diminution to our physiology, which still, naturally, views these activities as essential. At any rate, while downplaying physiological needs has its own repercussions -- the quality of one's sleep is nothing to scoff at, for example -- it is not the reason I have introduced Maslow's hierarchy.

Again, I have involved the hierarchy in order to frame the issue. I want to explore the types of behavior "cellphone" is latching onto, the prestige, per se, it is gaining in our mind's eye by association to certain physical imperatives, as a function of our own behaviors and habits. Hence the constant hunger we feel to check our devices, the anxiety we feel when we cannot, even for short periods of time, of this very anxiety relieve ourselves, the yen to feel phone's familiar smooth surfaces in hand -- has not the urge for phone-play gone primal?

And if primal, if the device has indeed infiltrated the bottom level of the pyramid -- an infective agent finding willing hosts in our urgent but taken-for-granted needs -- it follows that it might then easily spread to and preempt needs higher up in the hierarchy; I do not know what pyramid level "cellphone" would naturally be in, but I do know that it is now in every level. It has leapfrogged addiction into acceptable and necessary behavior -- cigarettes without the smoke of stigma to ward us off, a khat epidemic sans unsightly cheek bulge to disgust us, only far more time-exhausting, distracting and numbing than either. And we aren't dissembling; we truly believe we need to constantly check our messages and further, that there is nothing wrong with this. Phone is now simply...pervasive:

People look down at instagram while listening to podcasts as they cross streets and snapchat while driving -- ignoring safety. Reading and studying do not last long before a phone must be minded and looking at paintings and photography has turned into a photographic activity -- goodbye cognitive and aesthetic needs, respectively. I do not need to tell anyone that we routinely ignore others for our phones, that a device in hand is worth a dozen friends at brunch and is far more interesting than that overgrown fetus in the carriage -- oh relationships, we hardly knew ye. Though perhaps we do need a reminder that the phone routinely preempts our relationship with another person -- ourselves; as device blocks off our thoughts, as we anesthetize ourselves with email, with media, with music, with those now proverbial ill-tempered birds, leaving only the marginalia of consciousness for contemplation, self-actualization, already a long shot, is rendered unreachable. Heck, we can barely even talk -- the phone has burrowed a satellite into forebrain, dictating language, our speech now punctuated by glances downward and pockmarked by "uh"s -- here a comma, where none, uhhhhhh, was needed, as the device exerts its gravitational pull on forehead, there an ellipsis, as a train of thought goes...

...uhhhhhhh...and then a quickening shoots through neck and suddenly gaze and thought rebound -- though perhaps not exactly to where they left off: Of course many of these preemptions were previously present with other instigators -- TV, video games, parties, the aforementioned cigarettes, landlines, work, books -- but never nearly to this extent and never just this one thing, this one preemptor, in all preemption cases; this device, which is itself the amalgamation of so many other devices, always the one in hand and with a hold on us. And never before has it been the same preemptor for each and every person, one device to rule us all, a common current to unite us, the one thing we all share and through which we all share.

Even when not in use, per se, the cell reigns above, constantly announcing its presence, continuously issuing audible and vibrating and even telepathic forget-me-nots, claiming our attention. In between utterances the device is said to be on standby -- but who is the one on standby? Who in this device-human partnership is the one always at the ready? Certainly not the device. Whereas we are in a constant state of agitated anticipation, always waiting, the device sits quietly, unruffled. But unlike us the device is always active, always interacting with home base or invading our thoughts. And we? We jump in and out of imaginary foxholes at every beep it makes.

Of course the device's preempting power and holiness will only increase. We are each placing literally everything on cellphones, consolidating our respective lives into an all-encompassing digital morass, and the more we route through our pocketable friends the more we increase their import and the easier we make it for them to claim our attention automatically. The device itself seems now to fight (very successfully) to be used, itself in its own existential plight -- which brings us to this:

Click here for Part 3-B of this series