Roma, Italy. A phone rings in a crowded bus. A boy takes it out of his pocket, turns the ringer off, and puts it back in place. The lady pressed up against him grins and, with a sort of complicity, asks: “You don’t feel like answering, do you?” “No, now it’s not really the moment”. She sighs as a sign of understanding and comments “I’m not saying it’s not useful… but sometimes the phone is just a real hassle!”, “Yeah” he says while others around silently nod…
On the subway, in the street and cinema, at the table, in the bathroom, in bed and even in the sauna… cell phones appear everywhere. And if everyone has it – today you would seem crazy not to have it – few dare to admit it: the mobile phone is a real curse.
Above all, that’s what those thinks that’s had a life before the mobile phone, knowing what it was like: they know every nuance of boredom, the ability to deal with themselves, to be creative in the thoughts or just to get stuck with interest on a passerby.
But cell phone is so accepted and little debated – few scientific researches, still less the social ones – that the word is left to comedians, cartoonists and comic strips and then some rebel manager, bloggers and a few TV series visions. Thinking of White Bear, a Black Mirror episode, that is also the name of a transmitter “whose signal has transformed most of the population into a sort of zombies obsessed with the idea of filming, via their mobile phones, everything around them”.
The mobile trend is always growing: according to 2014 projections, the year 2016 would have registered 2 billion consumers of smartphone (out of 7 billion of the world population). Instead, the number was double (4.3 billion) together with an almost static population at 7.7. In 2019 we are (“planned” to be) 4.68 mobile users in the world. And, if we combine this data with a 35% in the world of “connected people” (to the internet) becoming 53% in 2018, we realize that saying “everyone uses it” was not so true… (only) 6 years ago.
Today we can more easily say that cellphones will double the population and I don’t think is a good news. Oecd statistics already reveals that “in December of 2017, among the 1.344 billion people living in OECD countries, there were 1.377 billion mobile broadband subscriptions”, that is “102.4 mobile data subscriptions for every 100 people residing in the OECD”. The sociologist Manuel Castells, in his book Communication power (2014), stated that the availability of mobile broadband networks can be interpreted as the technological reflection of the socio-economic evolution of a country; if it touches a peak of 72% in North America, it stops at 7% in Africa and even falls to 4% in the more southern regions of Asia. Also in this case the numbers are changed in few years, but the gap still remains: North America is now at 75%, 33% in South Asia and 24% in (sub-Saharan) Africa. Who knows, maybe this is even a good thing…
Italy has always been considered the nation with more cellphones than inhabitants; in fact the penetration of mobile devices reached 158%: it was a fact that made us stand out from all other countries in the world. Only the United Arab Emirates (252%) and Russia (184%) did better than us. In 2014. Fortunately (for us) in 2018 other countries – Greece (24%), followed by Chile (23.4%), Poland (19%) and Belgium (15%) – saw the highest growth.
But who has the courage to abandon it?
As wittily pointed out by the US comedian Louis C.K. during a late show’s interview: “that’s being a person, right?” showing himself sitting on an armchair, looking around, doing nothing. “The thing is you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something, that’s what the phones are taking away”. This is the point, today it seems that people are no longer able to stay 5 minutes… “sit back” like we do on the planes (not by chance the only mobile-free place that we still have). Against our will, indeed, otherwise… as soon as people have a moment of pause it is the right time to pull the smartphone out (actually even while doing other two thousand things: see the infamous multitasking). Smartphone, the distractor of 2000 century (by the way Word insists on changing “distractor” into “destroyer”…). Distractor from any life (no matter how boring or unpleasant it may be) that is happening at that, specific, time. Whether it’s the daily journey, always the same, on the metro, or a moment of solitude in the car, Louis says. Not that in the past (and still today fortunately) there were no newspapers or books or walkmans to fulfill this task, but we can perfectly see how “sense-dulling” smartphones are, compare to music or books. With music we keep looking at each other, with books you can still communicate in an indirect way. But the obstinacy with which the nose is now pointed downwards, on a small screen, is a bit bleak.
The point is that cellphones are able to “soothe” a wound immediately – time to distraction! It’s a wound that all human beings more or less feel, for the simple fact of being, each one, unique in the world. That is the solitude. A sense of emptiness, “the forever empty” Louis says, planted in the middle of the stomach. And it is when you must compulsively chat with someone, and someone will always answer you – because in the end it doesn’t matter who answers you, as long as someone does it… even the “loser” is ok, the one that you will not hesitate to ignore when you will prefer to answer another one that you consider better than him. But this is already sufficient to feel immediately relieved.
Maybe the book takes more time to reach the same effect (maybe you have to finish it) and even the music can take you down initially (to make you touch the bottom to go up later). Above all, books and music (on headphones) are still solitary activities. Like the cellphone. But how is it able to project yourself into other worlds, situations, conversations…? Reading and music also project us into “other worlds”, but one thing is the exercise of fantasy, identification, “immersion” in a story, which requires great concentration in the present; another thing is to navigate the illusion of connection, where everything flows and by force very little remains. The smart phone does not require “tiring” concentration at all, its feature is the exact opposite: perpetual distraction that feeds itself.
Nobody wants to blame one of the most revolutionary human life’s means, for so many aspects from distances to emergencies, but certainly it is not possible to pretend that a phone could fill that ancestral void. That one is filled by exalting one’s individuality and individuality is created through others, as in a game of mirrors, building us through what we like or not in other people. But if paradoxically we never see these “others”, always preferring to call or write them, we would never register any of their reactions to what we say. We would never know what it means to insult someone, for example.
And this is where the controversy arises: if children become immediately accustomed to interacting with a machine rather than with other children, they may have difficulty in empathizing with others, and therefore in developing their own emotional intelligence, useful for formulating correct reactions interacting with the people we meet in the flesh. Incitements that can be positive and negative, rarely neutral. “You know, kids are ‘mean’ and it’s because they’re trying it out” Louis says. If a child writes “you’re fat” to another, he doesn’t see the reaction he would see otherwise, to learn how to behave respecting people. The so-called cyberbullying also feeds on this: the fact of not feeling anything.
It had to be a means of communication, instead it is a means of distraction with respect to what we are experiencing directly, which provides a series of other subtle changes that have a reverberation on reality – mobile phones make us latecomers, make us forget the roads and weakens our orientation, we don’t even need to remind numbers or notions, there is so much Wikipedia. Out of phase, forgetful, lost? While phones become smarter…
1 “I thought mobile phones made appointments easier, while the opposite is true. Without a way to let the other person know that “I’m running a little late”, people are much more likely to be on time”.
2 “’I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make it because bla bla bla…’ Ever got this message 5 minutes before the appointment? Without a cell phone this never happens. People just don’t have the cheeks to leave you stranded. Canceling in the last minute is made possible by cell phones only”.
3 “Not having a phone allowed me to give my undivided attention to the person I was with. This had a huge impact on the quality of time I spent with them”.
4 “Not having a phone made me realize how irrespectful and ignorant it is to fiddle with your phone in company. Taking an urgent call may be excused if kept short. But checking and writing sms and email is equivalent to saying: ‘Dude you’re so boring if it wasn’t for my phone I’d fall asleep’ and ‘I’m sorry but I have the self-control of a five year old, I just have to check this NOW’”.
5 “I didn’t miss anything. The people who needed to reach me found a way. I don’t need to be available all the time”.
6 “Having a cell phone, especially a smartphone, takes time. A few minutes here playing Angry birds and a few minutes there checking the weather, news, social media or email add up to several hours a week. And it’s not just time that would be wasted otherwise. It’s time you could spend with your family or friends (face to face)”.
7 “I used to worry about losing my expensive smartphone. So I’d often check my pocket to see if it was still there”. (By the way, talking about electromagnetic radiation, I add that this is not a good habit). “Now it wasn’t. Every time I acknowledged that, I felt a sense of freedom and relief: one thing less to worry about”.
In short, there is a small rebellion taking place that few are noticing. There are always updated lists of “celebrities” who have no phone. There are those who admit to have never bought one, some have taken it and then abandoned it, some that have left the old nokia to gain the last iPhone and then go back to the old nokia, there are those who occasionally do “purification” and leave it for a few weeks, there are those who use it as a landline leaving it at home everyday. The “creative” approaches are varied and the attempt is always not to get sucked into a useful device that risks to be a distractor from everything that is more important, from work to people, and that is happening now. Moreover, in the doubt that it could end up like cigarettes – from advertising to cancer – it can certainly be wiser not to overdo it!
In an interview with a little girl who does not use any cell phone while her friends do, the journalist asked: “but how do you communicate with them?” (By the way in his interview Louis provoked: “just because the other stupid kids have phones, doesn’t mean that ok well my kid has to be stupid otherwise she’ll feel weird, right?”)
The girl answered: “When I look them in the face, I mean when we are in the same place I communicate with them. On the phone I don’t even know what to say, I need to understand the mood of other people to be able to talk to them without offending”.
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