Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cellular Phones and The Illusion of Self Importance

What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
People are funny sometimes.

Not, "Haha, do I look like a clown to you?" funny, but rather in a hypothesis-generating,  "Why do people act the way they do?" funny. There are times where these are the same, and depending on your perspective, the following examples I present could be both. Regardless, people's actions never cease to astound me, as does the ignorance of their own behavior.

Even if we can never figure out why people do the things they do, there are some things about which we can be certain. One of these is that cell phones have fundamentally changed our social protocols and created an illusion of self importance. Now, that's funny.

A Brief (De-)Evolution of the Cell Phone

Finally! A cell phone with its own gravitational pull!
What began as a novelty item in the 1980s mostly because of cost and their enormous size (dear lord, those things were huge!), has now become an essential item for every person in 13-40 demographic. Or rather everyone who doesn't fall into the "Get Off My Lawn You Hooligans!" Demographic.

Cell phones are now an item that one must have in order to be a part of any social group or stay in contact with friends. The more social networking features  (like texting, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc ad nauseum) your phone has to stay in touch with friends, the better. New cell phones are now more like mini computer than phones. Even to the point where many common features of phones are now becoming secondary to new ones that are supposedly more convenient.

The latest iPhone incarnation, the very creatively named "iPhone 4" was released last year. Wow, what could possibly be the name of the the next one? My bet is iPhone 26. This feature filled "cell phone" had antenna issues so remarkable that some customers weren't able to perform the simple task of making or receiving a phone call simply if they held the phone in their left hand.

"Screw you Southpaws!" Steve Jobs was quoted as saying after unveiling the device. Okay, not really... but look at the way these people are holding their phone. It seems like a pretty standard way to hold the device. How are we supposed to hold it to make it work? Between our fingernails like the hair you pull out of the drain stopper in the tub? Spin it on our fingers like pizza dough?

When your product has the word phone in it's name, you'd think it'd be able to perform the single simplest function of a phone. With the seemingly infinite features of the new iPhone, the old rotary phones that have existed for more than a hundred years had a feature the iPhone 4 did not: It could make a phone call.

Texting and Proper Dating Etiquette
Piggy just became the next Snackrifice to the Munchie Gods.

I have a younger sister who is about to graduate from high school. In the last few years, more and more teenage boys have been coming around the house to pick her up. Now, I realize my position as an older brother is going to alter my perception of these young gentlemen (re:  punk ass brats). Certainly, they could be fine young men (and the kids in Lord of the Flies just had the munchies). However, I'm dubious of their intentions. In spite of this, the terrible things going on in teenage boys' minds is not what my concern right now, it's moreso the accepted etiquette of teens in general. One thing that sticks out in my mind is a major difference in the courtship etiquette from when I was a teenager (not that long ago, mind you) and now.

These teen boys will pull up in front of our house, and before anyone in my family can tell my sister that her friend has arrived to pick her up, she bounds out of her room, ready to go, and gives us the courtesy "I'mgoingoutbye!" as she rushes out the door. The beat up Honda Civic the boy drives sputters away and that's the last we see of my sister until she tries to sneak back in the house at midnight that night.

What's missing from the above scenario?

Besides any semblance of manners on my sister's part, missing is any sort of human interaction between my family and this boy. Instead of parking his car and walking up to the door to introduce himself to my parents and (more importantly) myself, he pulls up and picks up my sister like my house was some sort of teenage girl drive-thru (I'll take a blonde cheerleader, easy on the perkiness, with a side of black framed glasses...actually change it to a redhead).

Perhaps I'm behind the times, but when did the above scenario become socially acceptable? I remember how nervous and tense I would get back in the day when I picked up a girl for a date because I knew that I wanted to make a good first impression, that way I could continue picking up that girl for future dates (and we all know what future dates mean... cha-ching!).

I made an effort! I put in work! I walked uphill both ways! In the snow! Hell, I didn't even have a car. I had to get a ride from a parent or I had to catch the bus. Trust me, it's not easy getting a second or third date (or second or third base, for that matter) when you're riding the bus. These kids aren't even making the effort to walk to the front door.
"I don't see the big deal about texting and drivin'...
Oh shit! A deer!"

Why aren't these kids making the effort?

Texting. This boy can simply text my sister once he gets to her house (or on the way there, heaven forbid) and she will come strolling out. No need to get out of his car, face the parentals, or the wrath of older siblings. These kids have it made.

Texting has made kids lazy, at least that's my theory. Texting is instant gratification. Type. Press send. Lay back, relax, and forget about it. That is how today's teens are being trained to interact. There's no more effort than the movement of thumbs.

The Instant Illusion of Self Importance

Instant gratification always comes at a price. This is true in nature, media, social situations, and pretty much every other case possible. You want that Big Mac right now? You have pay money for it. Then, you have to exchange a portion of your health for that juicy, delicious morsel of the American dream Jay Gatsby never got to realize. You want that amazing rush that comes with driving 90+ MPH down the freeway? Be prepared to get pulled over and pay a fine, or worse, pay your life when you flip your car after clipping the median. Instant gratification always has its costs.

Everything comes with a price. EVERYTHING.
The cost of the instant gratification of texting and the infinite number of features that come with cell phones nowadays is an illusion of self importance. Anyone who has a cell phone with a truck load of features will check their phone constantly. Something about have a "smart-phone" suddenly gives people symptoms akin to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Here's a fun experiment that proves my point. Find someone you know who has a smart phone or who texts often. Spend some time with them and count the number of times they check their phone and then don't do anything with it. They will push a button to turn on the screen just to confirm that no one has texted them or called them.

People do this constantly, all day, every day. Imagine a pigeon or a rat that gets food at random intervals throughout the day. The food pellets come in a small box at the side of their cage. How often will the pigeon or rat check that box? They will check it constantly. It's basic Behavior Modification, or more specifically Operant Conditioning with a Variable Interval Schedule of reinforcement.

People have been conditioned in the same way as lab animals and that's the way the cell phone company CEOs like it.They believe that they are constantly missing out on something and therefore must "stay in the loop" by making sure they respond to every text. Even though there is no indication that they have received one. Phones light up, make noise, and vibrate when a text is received. Why then do people check them to "make sure" they haven't received one?

Besides that, what is so urgent about responding to 160-character limit message that we feel compelled to check our phones every minute? I see people ignore phone calls all day, but then interrupt the person they're sitting and speaking with to respond "real quick" to a text. Shouldn't the phone call take priority? Of course, hardly anyone calls each other anymore. Calling someone suddenly became taboo because that means the other person has to take time to speak with you. Ugh.

Imagine a whole generation of kids ending up like this...
When did we become too busy to speak to anyone on the phone? Is the second season of True Blood you're streaming on Netflix really that important? When texting became commonplace in society, no one's time suddenly became too important or valuable to ignore social conventions, etiquette, or friends. No one is busy, important or popular enough to check their text messages, Facebook, or Twitter feed every minute of the day (OMG! Ashton Kutcher had pancakes for breakfast again!!1!!).

Cell phone are a great invention and a very convenient tool that have changed the way we communicate with each other. However, for too many people they have become a crutch that they depend on in order to avoid dissonance in their lives. They focus all day on mindless things like texting in order to avoid the (what has now become) difficult task of living, breathing communication with other people, as well as avoid other responsibilities in their lives.

Do yourself a favor. Go a whole day, or better yet, a whole weekend without your phone on or with you. See how that feels. Just over a decade ago, people were without cell phones and got along just fine. Social events still happened without a hitch. The world still spun and the sun didn't burn out. People left messages on home answering machines and their friends would simply call back when they were home (or not at all because your friends hated you). People got along just fine without constantly being bombarded with texts or updates about other people's lives every second of the day. We can get along just fine (if not better) without these things for a while.

In summation: Disconnect! Let your mind free. See what you do with your time without your cell phone. You'd be amazed what you can accomplish. I promise you will relax and be happier when you let go of all these petty things that distract us daily. More importantly you'll feel better when you stop letting other people's lives dictate how you live your own.


  1. Um - you really think you made a better first impression on my mother? Fourth of July, anyone?

  2. The point is that there is effort to be made. Swinging by to pick up a girl without at least introducing yourself is ill-mannered and doesn't show any effort whatsoever.

  3. I have a severe love-hate relationship with texting. Some people definitely can take it too far though, and it's much too often a cause for miscommunication.

    While I'm as guilty as the rest when it comes to checking my phone too much and the instant gratifcation it serves, I agree that it feels amazing to go camping, or on vacation, and be disconnected for a while.

    In other news, I enjoy your blog! lol


  4. You're a crotchety old fart already Allen.

    More seriously though, well written piece. I didn't even know you had a blog 'till tonight. I'll have to start keeping up with it.