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.

 

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One Year Since Sandy Hook

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A year ago, on the heels of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I posted an essay entitled America and Guns. I wanted to express my outrage at how our country was doing little or nothing about its exorbitant gun fatalities.  A year later and – believe it or not – I’m even more outraged.

On December 10, Mother Jones Magazine reported that 194 kids have been shot to death since Newtown.  Of these 194, the vast majority – 127 – were killed at home due to unsecured guns (this despite the National Rifle Association’s claim that more guns in the hands of adults will protect children).

On December 11, NBC News Investigations reported on December 11 that a total of 173 children under 12 years old had been killed by guns in 2013.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports that the gun death rate for children in the U.S. is 4 times higher than Canada (the next highest rate) and 65 times greater than Germany or Britain.

There are more statistics, some of them much higher than those I’ve cited.  Although not many.  Why not?  Because the NRA and its allies in Congress have pushed for legislation making it harder for the federal government to collect data.

***

After the Newtown horror, there was a lot of talk about having a “national conversation.”  President Obama called for a number of legislative measures, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, a limitation of 10 rounds on magazines, enhanced background checks, and the closing of loopholes in gun trafficking.

All of his measures were defeated in the Senate in April by a majority of Republicans and a handful of red-state Democrats.

After Newtown, the gun lobby tried to divert the issue away from guns, and pointed to mental health as the culprit.  Inadequate mental health resources may certainly be part of the problem – at least with regard to mass murders and murder-suicides.  But what have we accomplished this past year with legislation supporting mental health initiatives?

In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), noted that 36 states increased their funding for mental health in 2013.  But she says this was “a drop in the bucket” after four years of radical cuts to mental health during a recession.  She said most of the funding in 2013 was through state bills being considered even before the Newtown shootings.  Diehl gives the feds “a C-minus, maybe a D.”  She said there’s been “lots of talk, no action.”

“After these sorts of shootings, there’s a lot of talk, and a lot of policymakers saying we need to do something about the mental health system,  But then, when push comes to shove and the budget debates occur, mental health seems to lose out.”

So here we are, a year later, with yet another school shooting in the news – Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado.

Maybe it’s time we had another “national conversation.”

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