Cell Phones, Disconnection, and Connection

Does this kind of idea run through your mind when you think of cell phones?

I don’t know which is worse–the loss of the sense that walking along a great urban street is a glorious shared experience or the blurring of distinctions between different kinds of places. But these cultural losses are related, and the cell phone has played a major role in both.

It sure doesn’t run through mine. But apparently Paul Goldberger thinks of it, and is concerned that we should too. He’s so concerned he wrote an article about these “cultural losses”, titled “Disconnected Urbanism”, for the November issue of Metropolis Magazine.

I have to disagree with Mr. Goldberger. I have a cell phone, and I use it regularly, and yes, it stops me from being disconnected to the places where I can’t be. I can call my parents, across the Pacific Ocean and a few thousand kilometers of Canadian mountains and prairie, and hear their voices pretty clearly, from a bus traveing down along the Western coast of Korea. I can make plans for Sunday night, when I will be back in the city where I live, from a night club in Seoul on a Saturday night. I can choose not to answer, or simply stop paying too-close attention to the phone, when I am caught up in something interesting—even mildly so&#151for as long as I like. (And sometimes I even do so without choosing to!)

The cell phone certainly hasn’t cut me off from the Korean live music scene, which is hidden away in dank basement clubs in the college areas of Seoul. Rather, it’s put me in touch with it, because I can actually call people who can tell me how get to these otherwise unlocatable places.

It hasn’t dislocated me from people who I care about, who sometimes have no other way of contacting me than via a phone call at some random, unexpected time. One night when he first arrived back in Korea, my friend John called and it was so good to hear him talking, going on about the Philip Roth novel he was reading, describing his trip to California, and complaining about annoying people and so on.

When my friend Sun Hwa calls me and surprises me at random times, it always brightens my day. She was there when I wrote my first poem in Korean, even though I was alone on a bus to Seoul in the middle of the night.

All this taking buses, living far away from people I care about… people say this is an evil of modern life. But it is the way many, many people must live. In a post-agrarian society, specialization arises, and the more specialization and globalization we find, the more people need telecommunications to maintain important human relationships. Of course on a day-to-day basis one who lives solely by the cell phone lives a life empty of something very important&#151the true human contact that we all need. But does anyone actually do this? I don’t know anyone in Korea who does, and most of my friends here, foreigner and Korean alike, have cell phones.

I think the case with the cell phone is basically comparable to the case with any other new technology. People worry about it at first, write manifestoes about all the ludicrous things that are supposedly lost to the new technology, all the evils it brings.

I’ll admit that telecommunications technology does change the way one thinks and relates to the world. Hell, look at me. If I lose my internet connection for more than 12 hours I get uncomfortable. When I get off an international flight to Korea, I usually go to where I can check my email before I do anything else (after I get my luggage, of course). And there’s a lobby in the departures floor of the Seoul airport that allows me to do this for free, so you know I’m not the only person who wants the service. I did without a connection at home for three weeks and got pretty antsy towards the end. I am growing nervous about the fact that I’m about to pass almost two months in Northern India without such a connection in my place of residence!

I am sure plenty of my Korean friends feel this way about their cell phones. In fact, most of them who have lost or broken their phones have actually reported to me a feeling of peaceful disconnectedness, followed by, a few months later, a phone call to let me know they have a new phone, and that I should please record the number. But I am sure a great many people also feel a kind of frustrating disconnection when between cell phones. It’s so powerful that most people I know skip from an old phone to a new phone directly, without any interruption in service.

It reminds me of a scene in Iain M. Banks’ novel The Player of Games, where the main character, a fellow named Gurgeh, is required to meet with a drone but leave his communications unit behind for the sake of secrecy. Banks goes on and on about how stories in the futuristic Culture always signal something the onset of something bad, scary, dangerous, or otherwise very unusual by having someone leave behind his or her communications unit (I forget the word Banks uses for this technology). The novel itself is no exception.

Maybe in the future, we will carry our com-units everywhere too, to keep us monitored and safe and connected to everyone we know. I just happen to think this might not necessarily be such a bad thing, if we have a certain degree of control over who can see our information.

For now, I think those bemoaning the evils of cell phones should look at their predecessors: those who warned that home telephones, televisions, cameras, electric lights, phonographs, motor cars, and other technological innovations would be the downfall of civilization because they would destroy Western culture. (The environment is another story, mind you.) It’s time to stop making such Victorian predictions about technology and learn to accept that new tech is going to flood our world more and more quickly. Fighting it will do nothing to stem the tide: but we have freedom of choice, at least. And that will see us through, as long as the tech isn’t outright destructive.

2 thoughts on “Cell Phones, Disconnection, and Connection

  1. In an attempt to allay your worries, I am rather certain that Dharamshala would have internet cafes. Too many foreigners go there for it to not have even one. And the rates would be cheap.

  2. Oh, I know there’s at least one internet cafe there… I have a friend who emailed me from it, a month or so ago.

    What has me worried, though, is the fact that not having an internet connection at my fingertips is going to drive me a little bananas. When I am writing, I can usually take a few moments to research what I am going on about, but without an internet connection I’m going to have to do without that.

    It’s gonna be tough. But I just hope I can bring my PC in and plug it into the network, or whatever, for a few hours a week, to upload pics and posts to my blog, and so on. I think that’s just what I’ll have to do!

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