The other day I went to the Faculty Technology Office for help posting an online exam for one of my courses. The woman who works there asked two student aides to observe so they could learn the process. When she finished helping me and turned around to ask if they had any questions, they were both texting on their cellphones.
Cellphones are everywhere. The clerk at Rite Aid. The butcher. The baker. If there were still candlestick makers, I’m sure they’d be on their cellphones. In fact, maybe that’s why they went extinct: not having cellphones. And, of course, in class. It helps if I call the student by name and ask them a question about the material just covered. They are usually embarrassed enough to cease and desist, but not always.
We are becoming homophones, part human, part iPhone 10-11-12. Take your pick. I still use a 5s. Maybe they should number them the way they do Superbowls. Eventually, football players will have cellphones built into their helmets so they can communicate with each other on the field and make dental appointments or lunch dates.
Many people can’t get by without their cellphones. A student admitted recently that his cellphone has become an appendage or third hand, which makes it infinitely more valuable than an appendix. Perhaps in the future appendices will be replaced at birth with cellphone chips that will last a lifetime and can be redeemed by the family at death. And who knows? Maybe in the distant future homophones will be born without appendices but cell phone chips that grow with them just like any other organ. No doubt the transhumanism clique at Google and the NSA would love that. Think of all the jokes about “chip off the old block,” etc.
Would that this were a laughing matter, but it isn’t. I can’t walk down the street anymore without having to evade homophones on their cellphones who walk in straight line trajectories oblivious to the world around them. I have seen delivery drivers, construction workers, deli servers, police officers, customer service agents, and airline pilots on their cellphones. As incredible as that last one is, my favorite is the mom or nanny pushing an infant in a stroller, holding a toddler’s hand, and talking into a cellphone that she presses against her shoulder with her head as if about to play a Bach violin concerto.
In a variation of the Bach homophone, I saw a mother pushing her child across a busy intersection in a stroller, but in this case the child was on the cellphone. Granted, he wasn’t making a call but playing one of those colorful games I see people absorbed in on the subway. His hands were so small he was barely able to hold the phone. I stopped, stared, and then was summarily honked at. It’s New York.
Here’s the problem: distraction. I don’t mean merely in a safety sense, although that is important. Neither do I mean manners or cultural mores. I had dinner this week with two classmates from college, all in our sixties, and not one of us put a cellphone on the table. The thought never crossed our minds, which is to say we are not millennials. Not that anyone would mistake us as such.
What I mean is distraction as a mode of existence. The cellphone, or smartphone, contains everything we need to live. Information, as the Twitter sphere reminds us in one cliched post after another, is power. Cellphones give us plenty of that, more than most people can process. But one fundamental thing they cannot provide is insight into ourselves. This, despite big data’s ability to track and anticipate our buying habits.
Cellphones cannot give us insight, because they are designed to take us out of ourselves. Tim Cook might argue that iPhones were never meant to be existential or spiritual props, but look at their marketing. It’s all about how technology will make our lives better, which reminds me of the DuPont advertising slogan, “better living through chemistry.” Now, it’s better living as homophones.
But don’t worry. There’s probably an app for that.