Friday, February 03, 2006

Breaking Free From Our Cells

I resisted getting a cell phone for a long time. My reluctance to join the ranks of the perpetually connected was due in part to finances. We just couldn’t justify the monthly charges in light of other priorities. The greater part of my resistance, however, was that I simply didn’t want to be accessible around the clock to anyone who might have my number. Some of my most productive thinking is done in the car while either listening to talk radio or just being quiet. I find the thought of having such moments of solitude interrupted by incoming calls most disturbing. I dread being shackled by what Stephen King refers to as the “21st-century slave bracelet.”

My wife and I eventually broke down and bought pay-as-you-go phones so we could communicate with each other in the event of an emergency. There’s no monthly charge or annual contract. All we have to do is make sure to purchase the minimum amount of time every 90 days. We don’t give the numbers out indiscriminately and make sure that we inform those to whom we do give them that these aren’t the lines to call us on to chit chat. (Time is money, you know.) We don’t even use them much to talk with each other. Lately, I’ve used the text messaging feature to send luv notes 2 my huny. Occasionally, I’ve called her from a supermarket or department store to ask again what it was I was supposed to be picking up. I have to admit that when I reach into my pocket and feel my little flip phone, there’s a comfort in knowing that if my family needs me, I’m accessible to them at any time. That was especially so when I had to go out of state recently for a conference.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I stopped by a local convenience store to pick up a few items. In the midst of ringing up my friend’s purchase, the cashier stopped to answer the phone behind the counter. It was a business-related call concerning a shipment of some kind and it obviously took precedence over tending to the customers standing in line. As we were walking out of the store my friend expressed slight irritation with service people who interrupt their service to take calls. I found this quite ironic since more than a few of our conversations have abruptly come to a halt due to an incoming call on his cell phone. It’s kind of like face to face call waiting. The immediate conversation is put on hold in order to tend to another.

When I give thought to God’s call for me to love my wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church, I'm prone to think of grandiose, heroic episodes like risking my own life to push her out of the way of a speeding car or throwing myself in front of her to shield her from a bullet. Fortunately, in the sixteen years we’ve been married, no such scenarios have arisen. But there have been countless opportunities to practice self-denying love through doing such things as picking up after myself around the house, preparing a meal for her for a change, or surrendering the television remote with gladness when our viewing preferences clash. I’ve missed (or avoided) most of these daily dyings while fantasizing about how, if the time came, I’d give my life for her.

When it comes to loving our neighbor as ourselves, I think we are prone to the same kind of delusions of grandeur. We can daydream about heroic expressions of loving another while overlooking the many apparently mundane opportunities that fill each day. In this technologically-saturated age, a question we should constantly ask ourselves and each other is, How do we use technology in ways that acknowledge and affirm what we as Christians profess to believe? Keeping this question before each other is one way to heed God's command that we "consider how to stir up one another to love and good works" (Hebrews 10:24).

Lauren Winner has written an excellent article that spurs such thinking about the place cell phones have in our lives and how their use shapes our thinking about time, space, and embodiment in ways that don't coincide with a biblical outlook on life. She cautions:

When we buy into cell phones, we may be really buying into a cultural story that is much bigger than your average clam-shell. We may be buying into a story that tells us that all hours of the day are identical, that there's no right or good way to order time — 8 hours a day for work-related calls, for example, but peace and quiet and time for friends and family after 5 pm. We may be buying into a story that is essentially Gnostic, that tells us that our minds, our attention and our conversations should be focused on a person in another city, instead of on the person right next to us. We may be buying into a story that tells us never to be tranquil or still. We may be buying into a story that praises "connectivity" but yanks us out of the small corner of the world we happen to inhabit today. I love talking to my friends in New York, but surely I ought not do so at the expense of connecting to the small patch of campus I'm walking across in Durham, North Carolina, this very afternoon.
Winner's thoughtful piece reminded me of Doug Groothuis who, by the way, also recently acquired a cell phone. Though he won't give you his number, he will share his philosophy of cell phone use.

1 comment:

Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for the link. I linked to Ms. Winner's article (and your post) today myself. Peace.