by Dale Harris. First appeared on terra incognita, October 4, 2009.
One of the things I find indispensably useful in my work as a pastor is my HTC Smart Phone. I confess this with not a little sheepishness, because there was a time when I held out against cell phones on principle. And now, here I am, with no mere cell phone, but a touch-sensitive cellular communications device with instant access to email, gmail, text messages and chatting, roaming internet, youtube viewing and GPS capabilities. It's like a member of PETA getting caught on camera sporting a fur coat.
Now I say I held out because for a long time I had this sense that cell phone technology stunted the growth of genuine community by making us so independent and self-sufficient that we no longer need to have any real connection with the actual flesh-and-blood human beings around us. For example: time was when my car broke down on the side of the highway I would have to knock on the neighbour's door and ask for help; and more often that not, they would. Now I can call nameless, faceless roadside assistance from the comfort of my car (and view a variety of inane Youtube clips while I'm waiting for them to come).
I was talking about this with a friend a way back when cell phones were just exploding on the scene, and she told me that she found her cell phone helpful because when she had to walk home from her university classes at night and felt unsafe, she could call her dad to come meet her. Then she said: "Of course, if I didn't have the cell phone, I'd have to get to know the other students in the class well enough that I could walk home with one of them..." And I think that was my point in the hold-out days: I felt that roaming communications technologies like cell phones allowed us to seal up our spheres of influence so tightly that the strangers around us never had to be anything more than strangers.
And maybe there's a kernel of truth there.
But here I am with my HTC Smart Phone and it is, as I said earlier, indispensably useful.
But I'm also wondering about the revenge effects of such technology.
Author and social scientist Edward Tenner argues that all technologies have a natural tendency to "bite back" with "revenge effects" on the societies into which they are introduced. His theory is that societies are really just systems that constantly seek the "status quo." He suggests that as new technologies significantly upset this status quo, the system itself will naturally adjust in unexpected, unintended, even unconscious ways to counteract their effect, and so maintain the status quo.
Example 1: As we introduce a plethora of ingenious time-saving appliances to the kitchen, the system adjusts to maintain a status quo of busy-ness: once it's been freed from meal prep-and-clean-up hours, it's possible to overload our evening schedule with other things, and so we find ourselves busier than ever.
Example 2 (and perhaps more to the point): As communications devices make communication increasingly clear and easy, we find our actual communicating and decision-making processes more (not less) cloudy and confused because now everything has to be answered and decided and acted on under the tyranny of the now.
I'm not sure if Turner's on to anything or not (though they say that the advent of email has significantly increased-- not decreased-- paper consumption in the office workplace). But I do know this: the other day a friend called me at home and when I picked up the phone he said: "Finally found you." He'd tried my gmail, left a message on my voice mail, called my office phone, and when he couldn't get me at any of these he tried me at home. All the ways to connect with me, it seems, had actually made me harder to find.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth HTC.