From Laziness to Resistance: Conscientious Objection in an iPhone World

Smartphones! Credit: Vincent Diamante (link below)

I do not own a cellphone. Very rarely do I use a cellphone. I haven’t the slightest interest in having a cellphone.

I don’t know if any studies have been done, but I suspect that I am among a scant handful of persons in the Northern Hemisphere in this category. Whether this makes me part of a faithful remnant or of a pathetic band of hold-outs, I can’t fully discern.

Sure, when necessary I will borrow my partner’s cellphone to clumsily text. On rare occasion I have cause to borrow a flip-phone from my place of employment for work purposes. It’s a decidedly non-smartphone with a fairly focused purpose of, well, being a phone. The reactions of bemused onlookers inform me that this limited technological device is as antiquated as a manual typewriter–quaint, charming, but embarrassingly inappropriate.

Years ago I would have had to honestly ascribe my antipathy to cellphones more to laziness than anything else. True, I’ve long had a streak of Luddite in me. A younger me was quite struck by Wendell Berry’s infamous screed from 1987, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” (Well worth an internet read 30 years later–pardoning the irony–including the ferocious reactions it sparked.) But that hasn’t shielded me from falling captive to the laptop as a vital tool of my daily life.

As cellphones came on the scene, particularly in their evolving “intelligent” forms, and with the tsunami of hype (and expense), I felt a deep distaste. I also felt, for the first time, my age–here was a fundamental technological innovation that was part of a new generation. It defied my dated sensibilities and emanated from a society different than the one in which I was reared. At the very least, this meant that it would require significant research just to consider purchasing a cellphone–a daunting learning curve I was not enthusiastic to undertake.

But in recent years, my stance has hardened. It has gone from “I haven’t gotten around to buying a cellphone” to “I utterly refuse to own a cellphone.” From laziness to resistance.

The gestation of resistance was bred not just by analysis but also by simple visuals: On the bus or subway, practically every commuter with the ubiquitous bent-down head, flicking their finger on their devices. Pedestrians walking down the street reading texts, oblivious to the world around them. The kids gathered together who, instead of some form of interactive play, are focused on their respective little screens. The driver in the car next to me at the red light, lowered gaze, tapping away. It sounds excessive, but the truth is, I experience a literal repulsion–something in me is repelled. Coffee shops and parks, waiting rooms and stores–everywhere, this pervasive and perverse spectacle of wired autonomy overtaking the commons. Something in me aches at what seems like an ugly distortion of human life, a disconnection from the world around us and from each other.

(I have mused: in the evolution of our species, will humans a few centuries hence have slimmer, more efficient fingers and more flexible neck muscles and vertebrae to better facilitate the downward gaze?)

The truth is, I am hardly a solitary prophet in the wilderness. Many cultural commentators have critiqued the screen culture, the power of hand-held devices to diminish human contact and interaction. Psychologists have weighed in on possible perils of the “selfie” mentality on the human psyche. I am constantly in conversations with people bemoaning the ubiquity of these devices–especially fellow parents realizing the futility of trying to raise screen-free kids.

I would be loath to deny that, as a unique technological advance, the cellphone/mobile phone/smartphone certainly has its benefits. Lacking one, I have had to negotiate inconveniences like being stranded and unable to make needed contacts (though occasions of such are rarer than one might think, and as we oldheads are quick to claim of many modern technologies, “We used to get along fine without that!”). The ability for on-the-ground, instantaneous video documenting has had enormous political impact–not least of all in this society is the light shed on the usually hidden police abuses. As a tool of artistic expression, the smart phone has opened up venues for some amazingly talented young photographers who might not otherwise experiment in that medium.

Every new technology brings with it benefits and costs. As one combative pro-technology person wryly challenged me years ago, “How many monks lost their jobs because of the Gutenberg press?” I find myself frequently going back to a core paradigm I learned from the rogue philosopher Ivan Illich and his theory of “tools for conviviality.” Humans, Illich argued, constantly create tools, small or large, simple or complex, to achieve ends. But what frequently happens, especially as the tools become large and complex, is that, instead of the tools serving the human community, we begin to arrange our whole community in ways that serve the tools. Illich used this lens to critique many of our social institutions, most famously our education system, but also our health care system, transportation system, and others. The bulk of his work was done prior to the computer/internet age, but it’s not hard to see the contemporary relevance of his ideas.

(Also, a little theological vigilance might be in order: might an ultra-endowed iPhone cause us to forget that it is God, and not us, who has the whole world in their hands?)

So, are cellphones convivial tools supporting and nurturing human community? Or are we allowing our lives, our relationships, our connection to society and to the world, to be fashioned and dominated by cellphones?

A fair but complex debate, I grant. And one for which there is probably no clear or absolute answer. But beyond the calculus of pros and cons, as our world becomes more wired, viral, and screen-based, I intuit something deeper and more disturbing at play in our society–a slow corrosion of who we are as persons and how we live in community and in creation.

Back on the bus, to and from work, in the ebb and flow of human traffic and public space: almost everyone tethered like slaves to their portable technologies, invisibly bubbled off from each other and from this beautiful world. And again, that deep visceral shudder. More primal than ideas or analysis, something in me is anguished and revolted–and calls me to revolt.

Will O’Brien is part of Vine & Fig Tree, a small Christian community in Philadelphia engaging in various (hopefully not futile) forms of resistance to an ugly and violent culture. He coordinates the Alternative Seminary (www. alternativeseminary.net). When he disciplines himself enough to spend some quality silent time with the Creator, his day is almost always more sane and meaningful. But he’s fairly sure there isn’t an app for that.

Image: Vincent Diamante CC BY-NC 2.0

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Issue 50

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 50, Fall 2018, Everyday Habits.

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