Always On, But Not Really There – Why Cell Phones Incarcerate and How to Break Free
December 21, 2009
Cell phones are marvelous devices. They can unleash you from the harness of your land line, offer endless entertainment to cranky kids in the backseat and help track criminals who stupidly use a mobile phone to call home. The irony of the term cell phone itself is inescapable. Some days I too feel entrapped by my mobile like an inmate in a cell. If you feel incarcerated by yours, join the club. While the US has been slower to catch on to mobile device usage than, say, Asia, we are not far behind in the effects these devices have had on us.
With the invention of long-distance communications such as the telegraph, the telephone, satellite and even mobile phones, we have been able to connect the world with a few taps on a keypad. We can find each other at a crowded concert or call in case we get stuck alongside the road. The downside is we are always on or, at the very least, always available. For the non-criminals among us, it’s not always helpful to be that accessible.
Curious about the phenomenon of instant availability, I sat down for a Skype chat with Naomi Baron, American University professor of linguistics and author of the aptly titled book, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. While her book centers mostly around the evolution of language in the Digital Age, her most recent research points to the tenor of people’s thoughts around today’s mobile usage.
And it is surprising.
When asked to associate three words with the term mobile phone, the 18-24 age group Naomi surveyed said things like “annoying,” “addicted,” and “bondage”. When asked what they liked most and what they liked least about mobile phones, the number one answer was the same: contact. What they liked most was being able to call out if they wished (active). What they liked least was being the recipient of an unexpected call (reactive).
It takes two to text. But that is beside the point.
“People are feeling trapped by these devices,” Naomi relayed to me. Maybe being always on isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Whether in Sweden, Japan or Italy, Naomi found people to have a specific etiquette around mobile phone usage. It is considered rude to talk or even text in a movie theater in Sweden. Not surprisingly, Japan had the most uniform, formal etiquette. On the train, for instance, you are not to use it at all. Even text messaging is seen as disruptive. If someone does take a call, it is usually a business man who is then excused because, well, it was business. But things are changing. In 2001, 49% of those surveyed in Japan felt it was not okay to speak on their mobile phone on the street. By May 2008, Naomi found over 73% of those 18 to 24 years old said it was always or usual acceptable to do so.
In Sweden it is considered rude not to respond to a text message so many people feel obliged to text back within an hour. One Italian man revealed his strategy for dealing with the Always On phenomenon. “I put [my mobile phone] in a lead box to avoid being traced (so it does not signal that it is off, but not reachable).”
One American male revealed he is “too dependent” upon his mobile phone sometimes. An Italian female admitted she was much more tranquil when her cell phone was either broken or lost.
As we have seen, people have an ambivalent relationship with their mobile devices. We like the control, but prefer not to have to react to unwanted communication. In fact, as one Japanese person states, “Communication through [text messaging can] trick people’s minds as if they were engaged in real communication.” Texting a few jumbled phrases is not the same as having a face-to-face chat with a friend.
So how we can stop the madness of instant, unwanted availability and engage in the power of slow?
Create mobile-free zones. Seal your cell in the trunk of your car. Turn it off at meal times. Unplug for sixty minute increments. And, if you really have to, get a lead box like the Italian man in the survey. Regain the sense of control that instant communication once gave you so that you move towards a sometimes on, sometimes off, but always mindful life.