For the better part of a century, Western males have had two essential items they need when leaving the house; their wallet and their keys. It is a genuinely terrifying experience to realise either are missing because they are absolutely necessary for virtually any plans or activities. During the 1990s, the mobile phone joined the keys and wallet to form a trinity of essential male items. This is no small feat as, compared to the crowded pantheon of essential items that comprise the female handbag, the male essentials are generally competing for the extremely limited real estate in the front and back pants pockets. How is it that mobile phones have become such a necessity?
I was recently made painfully aware of the extent to which I rely on my mobile phone. I was making the long trip to Sydney’s Chinatown and realised that I had forgotten my phone. An hour can seem like a very long or short period of time depending on whether you are engaged or sitting bored. The modern smart phone allows you to listen to music, play games, read a newspaper or chat with friends. It was disconcerting to be left without any of these options. Upon arrival, I found myself regularly dipping my hand into the pocket where I keep my phone only to relive my disappointment. Unlike my keys and wallet, which surface only occasionally, I was surprised how often it occurred to me that I should text someone, call a friend to see if they are nearby, google a disputed fact that arises in conversation or update my facebook status as random epiphanies and epigrams enter my head. I was struck also by a distinct lack of freedom. As I use my phone as a clock, I was not able to walk freely and explore the shops and attractions as I normally would. Painfully aware that if I lost my wife it would be very difficult to find her again, I kept a close distance and reluctantly followed her into many places of little interest to me. Returning home, I raced into my bedroom and picked up my neglected phone; no missed calls or texts.
In 2008, mobile phones reached saturation point in Australia (that is to say, there are more phones than people). Mobile phone addiction, or nomophobia, is a real affliction comparable to drug or alcohol addiction. Diana James of Queensland University of Technology notes that addicts will experience increased heart rate, extreme anxiousness and, as one addict put it, feel like a limb is missing if they are without their phones. Many psychiatrists are suggesting that mobile phone addiction is one of the biggest non-drug addictions in modern times. Barcelona psychologist Andres Gonzalez estimates that up to 15 per cent of Spanish teenagers sleep with their mobile phones in case they get a text or call late at night. So are mobile phones an essential item, worthy of their lofty colleagues, the keys and wallet, or are they a dangerous new commodity keeping young people in an unnatural state of constant connectivity? In short, do they increase or decrease freedom?
St Augustine once mused that ‘complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation’. In some ways it is easier for a drug, alcohol or gambling addict as they can cut themselves off from their vice completely. This is why overcoming obesity is so perilous. Food is both a vice and a necessity so rather than cutting it off it must be eaten with moderation. In the same way, mobile phones can be a vice but they are effectively a necessity due to the nature of our technological society. The challenge for addicts is not to quit but to use in moderation.
Mobile phones have a unique ability to both increase and decrease freedom depending on their use. They give us the ability to quickly contact people, to find missing friends, to relay important messages and simply to talk when we need to get something off our chests. On the flip side they can be a virtual leash making us contactable at all hours of the day in all areas. There is something positive and healthy about turning the phone off occasionally behind any desire to contact or be contacted.
I suppose I think deeply about phones because I am part of the last generation to grow up without them. Before I went on my first date at age 13, I had to complete the time-honoured tradition of dialling the landline, making polite small talk to the parent or sibling who would invariably answer the phone before finally getting through to the desired person. I am no troglodyte and for the most part I fully embrace the inclusion of mobile phones into the trinity of essentials. I do propose three principles of protocol.
1. Turn your phone off (not on silent) during a lecture, movie, religious service, wedding or similar occasion. It may seem suffice to have your phone on silent but there are two important ideas here. Firstly, we should not be contactable at all hours. By turning the phone completely off during an event we are freeing ourselves from harassment but more importantly we are keeping things in perspective. We are showing respect for our fellow guests and for the event organiser and we are establishing that we do not need to respond instantly to all communication.
2. Give due respect to the person you are with. If you have met someone for a coffee or are with friends, you should acknowledge that their physical presence is valuable to you. Of course you may need to take a call or reply instantly to an important text (and if that is the case you should apologise to your company). For the most part, however, the phone can and should wait. Friedrich Engels lamented in the mid-nineteenth century that strangers pass each other in the street without tipping the hat or in any way acknowledging a fellow human. How much sadder is it if we barely acknowledge our own friends and family member in our presence because we are captivated by our phones?
3. Take a regular break. Go for a walk or a drive, pop down to the shops or just stay at home with a book but turn the phone off for a few hours. On the weekend at least, we should take a few hours without the virtual leash just to be free to enjoy an activity without the prospect of interruption.
We live in a society where we jog while listening to music, iron with the television on and keep the phone constantly charged and within earshot but we mustn’t be afraid to be alone with our own thoughts from time to time. Mark Twain once quipped that he displayed moderation by never smoking when asleep and never refraining while awake. It is a rule I’m sure he would not have applied to mobile phones had they been around in his day. There is undoubtedly a freedom that comes from our increased means of connectivity but there is a corresponding freedom that comes from cutting off that connectivity for a set period. Mobile phones are a great thing but like the keys and wallet they must be an asset, increased means to greater ends. We must avoid mobile phone addiction, lest they become cellular manacles, keeping us distracted and distanced from our goals our friends and ourselves.