Put Away Your Damn Fartphone

grim reaper

(They) keep you doped with religion and sex and TV—John Lennon, from his song “Working Class Hero”

Last week I was sitting in a co-worker’s cubicle, discussing an art rendering for a project, and I heard a familiar jingle. Is that my phone? I thought, instinctively reaching for my pants pocket. Couldn’t be Dave’s. I’m the only one who still has a non-internet flip phone.

I’ll be darned if Dave didn’t pull out his own flip phone. Later, I told him how good it felt to know I wasn’t alone in shunning the internet phone. He nodded and smiled, then went into something about iPhone costs, and how China was having the last laugh on the U.S.

Then, this morning, I saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how worldwide feelings of loneliness are becoming epidemic, that the U.K. actually has a Minister of Loneliness to deal with this problem, and that studies show a correlation between loneliness and people who regularly immerse themselves in social media. “(E)specially among millennials, the ever-present phone may in part be why.”

where are you

And I recently read a book entitled The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. Harris discusses how social media—being able to wire in 24-7—is helping to increase social and political apathy and is reducing our capacity for quiet solitude (absence), which in turn reduces imagination, creativity, empathy, and an ability for sustained concentration (one reason, perhaps, why fewer people now read books).

I’ll add that these devices also cause marked deficiencies in vitamin N (nature), and an increase in bad manners, something I wrote about back in 2013 (click here).

apes

It doesn’t take a PhD in media technology to see all this. Just go to a restaurant, or walk through an airport, or visit the local park. Or glance at people driving down the road. (But if you’re driving, don’t glance too long). Our obsession with “wiring in” is, indeed, epidemic.

The problem, as I see it, is less about omnipresent digital technology than lack of self-control. Children, obviously, have yet to learn self-control, and it’s incumbent on parents and teachers to develop this ability. If you put a large bowl of M&Ms in front of a child, then leave the room, what do you think the child will do? If you give your teenager the TV remote, and let him watch whatever he wants whenever he wants, do you think he’ll view PBS Frontline for an hour and then hit the books? Hell, do many adults watch PBS??teens

(TV is one of the reasons my parents sent me to boarding school. I guess it never occurred to them to remove the TV and kick my ass outdoors.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to social media, parents and teachers are setting a terrible example for kids and teens. Not only are they unable to refrain from reaching for this digital chocolate, but many can’t even recognize how their kids and students are being doped.

Not long ago, a friend of mine expressed concern that his son was doing poorly in school. I asked him if the boy had a smartphone. “Yeah, I got him one a year ago. But all his friends have one.” The kid was only eleven.

(Then my friend interrupted our conversation because his iPhone rang.)

***

One thing that really jumped out at me during the CBS Sunday Morning broadcast concerned Facebook. Boy wonder Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has to be the biggest Frankenstein monster worldwide. There are, undoubtedly, positives to Facebook. But as we’re becoming increasingly aware, there are just as many, if not more, negatives. And one of them is how Facebook, incongruously, actually contributes to loneliness.

lonely girl

“How the hell does this person get so many Facebook friends?” is something I once asked myself. Aside from the reality that most Facebook connections aren’t really “friends,” or at least true friends, and that Facebook correspondence between these “friends” is primarily superficial, there’s also this observation by Dr. Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health:

“People are able to take 300-400 pictures of themselves and post that one that makes them look like they are that much more thin or that much more attractive or that much more successful. The impression from the outside can easily be, on social media, ‘Wow, I can’t measure up with my very normal life.’”

Ah yes, the ever-popular selfie (or “selfish-ie”). Loneliness? How about clinical depression?

help

I’ve been accused of being anti-technology, including by members of my own family—all of whom, I might add (other than my 93-year-old mother), own iPhones. However, that’s an unfair accusation. I’m all for advances in responsible medical technology, which extend life and benefit health. In fact, I’m actually looking forward to my procedure next week to remove my prolapsed internal hemorrhoid.

I’m merely opposed to technology for its own sake, to the worship of technology, particularly leisure technology, by creators as well as end-users. And like I said above, it’s usually not about the technology, anyway. It’s about self-control. Too much technology and science, in irresponsible hands, and without self-control—as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made clear—can be dangerous.

And as author/environmentalist Edward Abbey also noted: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Or the hemorrhoid.

 

girl on couch

The Night Watchman

owl 3

To the islanders, he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.

(Author Herman Melville, writing about meeting Essex whaleship captain George Pollard, who ended his days as a night watchman on the island of Nantucket)

______________

As a teenager, I attended a boys’ boarding school for three years. It was a unique experience, as if 19th-century England had been transplanted to western Pennsylvania, and I could probably fill a book with all the craziness that went down there. But since I only have a small space here, I’ll share just one memorable episode that occurred my junior year.

Like every school, there were a bunch of auxiliary personnel that made the place function: maintenance, administration, food service, etc. For example, during my sophomore year in Clark Hall, there was a maintenance man named “Putt.” He was Native-American, and all the students loved him. I think he got his name because he was always “puttering around.” I remember he had an ongoing feud with the dorm master of Clark, Mr. Stokes. Putt called him “Stoke.” We never found out what the feud was about, but you couldn’t talk with Putt without him eventually bringing up “That damn Stoke.”

There were also the fieldhouse towel guys, Lyle and Howard. I’m sure they had other duties, but it seemed like their only role was to hand out clean athletic towels. Howard must’ve been in his 60s. He had a real soft voice, and he was one of these folks who can’t let go of a conversation. He’d go on and on, and you had to literally start walking away saying “Well, Howard, it’s been nice talking to you.” And he’d still be droning on when you were ten feet away.

But there was one person at that school that I don’t think anybody knew about other than me: the night watchman.

During my junior year, I had a bout of insomnia (it may have had to do with chemistry class). I remember lying awake one night, staring at the wood-paneled wall at 3 a.m., and hearing the downstairs door close. Then listening to footsteps on the stairs, and along the creaky hallway outside my door. Then up the opposite stairs to the third floor, then down, then out the door.

As far as I knew, everybody else was asleep. And this mysterious, nocturnal interloper somehow riveted me. Who the heck was he?

On the following night, at 3 a.m. precisely, I again heard the sounds. This time, I got up, opened the door a crack, peeked into the dimly lit hallway, and waited. As the steps became louder, I saw a yellow glow bouncing around the hallway walls, and heard a jangling sound. Eventually, strolling slowly down the middle of the hall, a man came into view. He looked like an oversized troll. He was short, bowlegged, mustached, and he wore a gigantic ring of keys on his waist and carried a monstrous flashlight. He looked somewhat like that Super Mario cartoon character, except he also wore glasses with really thick lenses.

I pulled my head back so he wouldn’t see me. Then I listened to the fading steps, and the door shutting as he left the dorm. I eventually fell asleep. But the following day, I saw the headmaster’s son and asked him about this strange apparition:moon_flashlight

“Oh yeah, that’s ____. He’s the night watchman.”

I asked him where ____ lived.

“He lives on the edge of the golf course. But nobody ever sees him. The school cuts him a paycheck every few weeks, and he picks it up on his nightly rounds.”

This fascinated me. Particularly when I realized there were no houses on the edge of the golf course. It was nothing but woods.

Later that day – instead of studying chemistry – I headed over to the golf course. I walked all along the line where the fairway hugged the woods. No houses… nothing. Then I saw a pathway that I’d never noticed before. It headed into the shadowy woods. Curious, I followed it.

After about a quarter-mile or so, I came to a building. I can’t really call it a “house.” It looked like it was made of cinder blocks, with a flat roof, and it had dark green moss and vines growing all over it. All the windows had closed drapes. No sign of life, and no sounds, other than a few birds chirping. Feeling a little creeped out, alone in the woods near this spooky building, I left.

Wow. This guy was Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins rolled into one! As is typical with me, my mind started doing cartwheels. “Maybe I should visit him some time, as he’s probably really lonely.” Then a couple seconds later, “Better not, he could be a serial killer. I don’t wanna end up buried under his vegetable garden.” Those kind of thoughts.

I decided to compromise. So, during my next night of insomnia, I left him an unsolicited token. After everyone else was asleep, I placed a Three Musketeers candy bar on the edge of the hallway (I figured a white wrapper would help my new friend notice it better). Then I waited.

At 3 a.m. sharp, I heard the door, the steps, then saw the flashlight beam. Then he came into view. As I peeked through the door crack, I watched in anticipation as he approached the candy bar. When his flashlight beam landed on the bar, he stopped. Probably for a full ten seconds. Although I’m no mind reader, I can guess what he was thinking:

“Should I pick it up? No, I’m a night watchman, not a trash collector. But it sure looks tasty! No, I’d better move on.” And he kept walking, as I pulled my head back from the door.

I was crestfallen. How could he not accept my gift?? It never occurred to me to step into the hallway and offer him the treat.

The foolishness of youth.

Well, it was the last time I did something like that, because later on during that sleepless night, I had a terrifying, and typically insomniac thought: what if he discovers I’m playing games like this and reports me to the headmaster? I couldn’t bear the idea of a confrontation:

“Peter, we’ve had some reports about you.”

“S-s-s-sorry, God.”

Not long after that night, my insomnia faded. And for the rest of my time in that school, I never heard nor saw my hermit friend again.

***

Like so many other things (such as chucking apples at cars… see previous post), I have regrets. Instead of playing games with candy bars, I should’ve just stepped into the hallway and introduced myself:

“Hi, my name’s Pete. I know you probably don’t get a lot of recognition, but we students really appreciate the work you’re doing, keeping us safe and all.”

And it’s quite possible he wasn’t the lonely hermit my imagination made him out to be. He may have led a very rich life, with family, friends, places he visited, and hobbies he enjoyed. Maybe it was just me who was lonely.

Wilson Hall