One wonders, what are they talking ABOUT? With WHOM are they talking? WHY are they compelled to be SEEN on the phone? And why are they so undeniably eager that others overhear their conversation?
The growing phenomenon I describe could well be called a “cell phone addiction.” This techno-condition represents much more than an ordinary social or commercial need to remain connected. When one looks closely at these communications, an incontestable message is delivered: Talking on a cell phone makes the caller feel more important, more valuable, less alone, less lonely. At a time when “rugged individualism” has become a pathetic cliche in America, and when “fitting in” is our supreme national expectation, being witnessed in conversation with another – ANY other – is increasingly vital to feelings of self-worth.
In this connection, the nature or urgency of the particular phone conversation underway is utterly irrelevant. In a great many observable cases, the exchange consists of indisputably meaningless blather punctuated by monosyllabic grunts. There is no vital content here; certainly nothing to resemble a serious reflex of thought or feeling. All that really matters, it seems, is that one is seen talking with another human being and that the conversation pushes away emptiness and anxiety.
How sad, how sad it all is. The known universe is said to be about 68 billion light years across, and yet here, in the present day United States, individuals are now openly terrified to become persons. For millions of Americans, being seen on the phone – preferably while walking briskly with rapt inattention to one’s immediate surroundings (including life- threatening car traffic) – is a desperate cry to every other passerby: “I am here; I have human connections; I count for something; I am not unpopular; I am not alone.” The cell phone, of course, has not CAUSED people to display such feelings; rather, it is merely a convenient instrument that expresses what might otherwise lie dormant in a society of dreadful conformance and passionless automatism, a lonely crowd driven by a ringing fear and trembling.
There exists, as Freud understood, a universal wish to remain unaware of oneself, and this wish generally leads individuals away from personhood and toward mass society. Hiding what might reveal an incapacity to belong, to be a good “member,” the anxious American soon learns that authentic uniqueness goes unrewarded and that affirmations of true self will likely be unpardonable. Humans often fear ostracism and exclusion more acutely even than death, a personal calculus that is largely responsible for war, terrorism and genocide. It is a small wonder, then, that something as harmless as a cell phone should now become a proud shiny badge of group standing.
The inner fear of loneliness expressed by cell phone addiction gives rise to a very serious and far-reaching social problem. Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or literature or medicine or philosophy can ever take place without loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass – from what Freud called the reconstituted “primal horde” or Nietzsche the “herd” or Kierkegaard the “crowd” – is notably indispensable to intellectual development and creative inquiry. Indeed, to achieve any sense of spirituality in life, one must also be willing to endure loneliness. All of our great sages sought essential meanings “inside,” in seclusion, deep within themselves.
I BELONG. THEREFORE I AM. This is the unheroic credo expressed by cell phone addiction, a not-so-stirring manifesto that social acceptance is vitally immanent to survival and that real happiness is solely the privilege of mediocrity. One can be inconsequential anywhere, to be sure, but personal sadness in present-day America seems to grow more intense where communication is difficult and where fears are incommunicable. In one sense, therefore, what I have called “cell phone addiction” is seemingly less an illness than an imagined therapy. Ultimately, in a society filled with devotees of a pretended happiness, it is presumably an electronic link to redemption.
But the presumption is all wrong. Trying, even desperately, to fill some vacancy within themselves, the compulsive cell phone users should now remind us of a revealing image from T.S. Eliot: “They are the hollow men, they are the stuffed men.” Leaning together they experience painful feelings of powerlessness. More than anything else, they now fear finding themselves alone, and so they cannot find themselves at all.
We live on “borrowed notions,” says Abraham Joshua Heschel, and our relentless reverence for acceptance by others prevents the possibility of quiet insight. It also interferes with an essential awareness of the transcendent meaning of one’s own actions, an interference that inevitably causes us to forget G-d and to ignore the true marvel and mystery of being-in-the-world. The soul must be perpetually in quest of celebration, not an outward ceremony and public demonstration, but rather a deeply inward appreciation that lends spiritual form to everyday acts. “Its essence,” we learn from Heschel, “is to call attention to the sublime or solemn aspects of living, to rise above the confines of consumption.”
The noisy and shallow material world has infested our solitude; upon all of us the predictable traces of herd life have now become indelible. Facing an indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse, we Americans seek both meaning and ecstasy in techno-connections, but discover that the way is blocked by insipid mimicry and endless apprehension. Do we dare, shall we ever dare to disturb the universe, or must we continue to die slowly, prudently, always in responsible increments, without ever taking the chance of becoming fully born?
One usually forgets that life is always death’s prisoner. But once we can finally come to grips with this idea, we can begin to take our numbered moments with more intense pleasure and with true confidence in ourselves as unique persons. For now only our self-doubt is inexhaustible, but this is because we routinely look to others to define who we are and because we despair when we do not measure up to these manufactured definitions.
In a sense, the attraction of the cell phone machine is derivative from our own machine-like existence, a push-button metaphysics wherein every decision and every passion follows a standardized and uniformly common pathway. We believe that we are the creators of all machines, and strictly speaking, of course, this is correct. But there is also an unrecognized reciprocity here between creator and creation, an elaborate pantomime between user and used. Increasingly our constructions are making a machine out of Man. In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now even appears that we have been created in the image of the machine.
Cell phone addiction is not a disease; it is merely the very visible symptom of a pervasive pathology. The underlying disease is a social order built upon nonsense, a literally mindless network of advertised meanings and ready-made ideas that deplores individuality and substitutes slogans for thought. Spawned by a system of education that foolishly identifies excellence with what can be measured on standardized tests, our American society has already lost all sense of awe in the world.
Cell phones in hand, we talk on and on because we would rather not think, and we would rather not think because there is no apparent emotional or material payoff for serious understanding. Holding fast to our cell phones, our fondest wish is that we should soon become interchangeable, but it is a wish that – once fulfilled – would turn into an endless sorrow.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and
articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and
Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.