That our cellular devices have bastardized communication is a commonplace complaint among my fellow babyboomers. Recently, I’ve seen (on my iPhone 7) photographs of signs outside coffeeshops and bars proudly announcing no Wi-Fi and exhorting their patrons to talk to one another. [cue Jesse Colin Young]:
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
And try to love one another right now.
On the other hand, what if you aren’t in the mood to talk to the person on the barstool next to you? A week or so ago, a fellow with a radio announcer’s voice engaged me in a conversation I would have rather avoided. He started quizzing me about my life, what I did for a living, if I were single. This led to the unpleasant admission that I was a recent widower, which triggered condolences and metaphysical observations that I found not very convincing. But instead of countering his suppositions with logical objections, I merely nodded my head, as if it were possible that the afterlife amounted to mere anthropomorphic wish-fulfillment, a skating park or golf course or multiplex theater based on the individual predilections of the deceased.
No, I would rather have been on Twitter chuckling over one of Matt Yglesias sardonic tweets or reading an article from The Times or The New Yorker.
That said, I do agree that beyond the utilitarian function of coordinating when and where to meet, texting is a taxing, inexact way to communicate. Obviously, it’s not an effective platform for debating whether Eliot’s The Waste Land is a satire of Eastern and Western Civilizations or a sincere cri de coeur from a tortured soul. Still, I can’t tell you how I enjoyed those simple texts from Judy like On the way home [heart emoji].
All in all, if used properly, cell phones enhance life. (Yeah, I realize you can say the same thing about alcohol or morphine).
I think a greater danger than its debasing communication is a cellular device’s ability to pump music into the heads of adolescents. Students-on-the-spectrum seem particularly prone to further shutting off the world around them by inserting an ear-bud and saturating their brains with whatever dystopian bands warm the synapses of their alienation. Many of their more outgoing peers also seem to be addicted. In my study halls, I allow students to listen to music on their phones, and virtually everyone does, males sometimes thrashing back and forth as they unravel those quadratic equations.
However, in my academic classes, I have my students place their cell phones in a basket at the beginning of the period, and if we’re working on a writing project, I ignore their pleas to return them because they “work so much better” when they’re listening to music. I offer a little experiment. I have them write as I sing the Stones’ “Satisfaction” into their ears. Sometimes they whine that they listen to classical music, and I tell them that they’re not really listening to the music, that they’re demeaning music that deserves their attention if it’s merely a sonic backdrop for their thinking. Plus, words create sounds. They should be paying attention to what their prose sounds like. Yes, I embrace my role as curmudgeon.
Recently my son Ned and I watched the movie Arrival, and I picked up on a sonic motif: throughout the movie blaring harsh industrial sounds puncture certain scenes of chaos. IMHO, the constant barrage of beeping backhoes, horn honks, thumping pimpmobile basses, leaf blowers, and sirens blaring in constant cacophony overloads our mental circuitry, which evolved over the millennia in the relative quiet of savannahs. This overload jangles nerves, shortens attention spans, invites chaos.
In fact, I find myself often craving silence. I turn the radio or stereo in my car off. I drive in silence. Perhaps when I retire I’ll abandon Charleston for
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.