CultureLife and Faith

It’s A Wonderful, Cellular World

Part One

Too often we accept without question the conditions that our collective mastery of nature has imposed upon us. In passive acquiescence to these conditions—which are rendered present by today’s pervasive technologies—the human capacity for change becomes limited by “the work of our own hands.” We are trapped within the very environment that we painstakingly endeavored to create. Those who are inattentive to this reality are inevitably pulled toward the gaping maw of habitual vice—whether of a grand or an infinitesimal scale.

How are habits formed? Let’s take handwashing as an example. The positive (albeit mundane) habit of washing one’s hands is as much a product of a person’s chosen environment as it is of his or her awareness that bacteria must be cleansed by lye. Likewise, the negative habit of attending to one’s cellular device for no apparent reason is a product of both the decision to purchase a cell phone (to introduce it into one’s environment), and of the value placed on said phone. Just as the victim of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder might succumb to the temptation to wash their hands until they are raw, so the habitual cell phone user is often overtaken by the desire to “utilize” the device so completely that nothing remains to “plumb” from its depths.1 Unfortunately, a cell phone can be inexhaustible—providing us with endless information to consume, while simultaneously leaving us feeling empty, yearning for something substantial.

Society at large is continuing to move toward the rapid optimization of all things related to the personal cell phone.2 This piece of equipment is ever more the portal through which we engage with—and even alter—the world we perceive. In allowing such unprecedented access and possibilities, cell phone technology simultaneously filters and distorts sensory awareness. Cell phones are the conduits of the modern self; they catalyze expression, manipulate memory, and mediate information. Perhaps the clearest expression of “cell phone selfhood” is found in the luminescent glow reflected on the face of each user. It is a phenomenon experienced daily by owners around the world, their eyes glued to silent screens…

Part Two

The following is a journal entry I wrote more than two years ago, after a day spent intentionally free from cell phone use. Rereading it now, I find its observations to be even more poignant…

Crawling out of bed this morning (2/16/14) and lumbering across my room into the kitchen, I experienced a profound (if groggy) awareness that something was missing. There was a phone-sized hole in my pocket. My hand no longer held the personal computer (better known as a smartphone) that I had recently acquired as a token of my loyalty and support for a large organization. This organization has a primary effect on the shape of society today. I am one of many Americans who is bound contractually to a company known as Sprint, and—provided I do not violate the terms of my agreement with them—I am entitled to upgrade my personal portable computer every two years as a reward for my obedience. This time around, I decided to purchase the LG G2. With every two-year cycle, I find that the time I spend in communion with my new device steadily increases. Perhaps it is a mere consequence of the fact that each phone offers so much more than its predecessor—faster processing speeds, faster internet access, more apps, more features, higher resolutions. Such improvements are inevitable given our collective decision to place value upon cell phones. No, that is not what bothers me. What bothers me is that I was unconscious of this “upward trend” in my usage until my phone was, in the words Augustine uses to describe the loss of his common-law wife, “torn from my side” (Confessions 6.15).

I have become accustomed to carrying my cellular device with me for each minute of my waking life. Its glow greets me every morning—welcome or unwelcome—and likewise its screen is the last thing I see before I close my eyes. On my first day without the LG G2, things proceeded much as they had before. But as time progressed, I began to notice stark differences in my perception of reality. For example, I found that play with inanimate objects became intensely engrossing:  I piddled away a couple of minutes rolling a tin of chapstick around on the floor. The fact that I even thought to do this speaks volumes about the regulating effect that my phone (a constant source of time and information) has upon my activities. As morning turned into afternoon on my day without the LG G2, I began to notice that my eyes felt “at ease” whilst gazing at objects other than light-emitting diodes (or whatever phone screens are made of these days).

This brings me to one of the primary thoughts that arose from my day of silence—the disparity between our perception of the material from which our electronic devices are formed (as well as the processes through which that material is refined and disseminated worldwide), and our perception of the devices themselves. As was mentioned in Part One, we regularly conflate technology with its effects. Who actually knows what metals are needed, and in what quantities and rarefactions, in order to construct the inner workings of a smartphone? In the case of my LG G2, its absence forced me to question its quiddity, thus exposing my previously utilitarian understanding of its form and function.

A similar enlightenment occurred when, reading at my desk, I became suddenly aware of the ticking clock. For a full minute I was lost in the methodical output of this machine (so often relegated to the background by our conscious minds). I watched as the “hand” gyrated around its center spoke to complete a cyclical journey. A full “segment” of time had passed. I sensed the arbitrariness with which this machine imposes order upon my experience. How much more, then, would a device that is capable not only of ticking, but also of countless other “alert” noises, do the same thing?

An afternoon spent in solitude. Silence my only companion. As the day wore on, my task became increasingly difficult as my mind, accustomed to the availability of convenient distractions, attempted to wander. I thought about taking a nap. I thought about occupying myself with some sort of “card game,” of preparing food or indulging in a beer or a soda. In the end, a brisk walk about my apartment complex dispelled some of these impulses. Returning to my room, I felt an introspective peace and a clarifying power—the silence began to augment rather than smooth over (as the LG G2 is wont to do) my sensory and mental activity. That day was one of the most productive and enjoyable I had spent in months.

From now on, I plan to take every Sunday as a day of rest from technology, and will also consider modeling this “restful” behavior in some tangible way during the week. One day I would like to reach the point where I am no longer haunted by the phantom tone, the faux vibration invented by my psyche as a clever mechanism through which I might again find recourse in the power button placed conveniently on the back of the once-black (now smudged) surface of my device. Let us hope that those whose minds have been obfuscated by the dregs of electronic habits might also find the strength of will to give back some time to themselves, and thus to take back the mode of living which our Maker first gifted us.

In the end, I remain an advocate of the position that cell phones (and most forms of technology, for that matter) are not inherently good or evil. Their moral value is inextricably tied to the exercise of the human will. However, this project has made me aware of just how radical a claim cell phones can exert upon a person’s life, thus complicating the relationship between human and machine as their ever-increasing capacities exert ever-increasing force upon human wills. Those of us who carry “smart” phones are in a relationship with an entity which practically exudes information, but is at the same time non-intelligent to the particular practices that constitute human flourishing.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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