It is mildly subversive and perhaps a little quaint when someone clings to their flip phone and refuses a smartphone. Refusing both kinds of phones is viewed as downright lunacy, especially if the person refusing was born after the mid-1970s. But I’ve never had a cellphone and I’m not going to get one. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.
The first is cost. No cellphone means no monthly bill, no possibility for an upgrade, no taxes, and no roaming charges (whatever those are). In an era of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, it is remarkable that people unthinkingly spend $75 or more per month on something that we hardly knew existed 15 years ago, much less counted as a necessity.
The second is concern for the environment. The manufacture of mobile phones (including raw material acquisition), the power they consume, and the energy used to transmit calls and access the internet all produce significant carbon dioxide emissions. The idea that cellphones are good only for a couple of years is widespread, increasing the number of phones that end up in landfills and leak toxic heavy metals such as copper and lead into the soil and groundwater.
The decisive reason, however, for me to refuse a cellphone is the opposite of everyone else’s reason for having one: I do not want the omnipresent ability to communicate with anyone who is absent. Cellphones put their users constantly on call, constantly available, and as much as that can be liberating or convenient, it can also be an overwhelming burden. The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere. Anyone who has checked their phone during a face-to-face conversation understands the temptation. And anyone who has been talking to someone who has checked their phone understands what is wrong with it.
Communicating with someone who is not physically present is alienating, forcing the mind to separate from the body. We see this, for example, in the well-known and ubiquitous dangers of texting while driving, but also in more mundane experiences: friends or lovers ignoring each other’s presence in favour of their Facebook feeds; people broadcasting their entertainment, their meals, and their passing thoughts to all who will bear witness; parents capturing their daughter’s ballet performance on their phones rather than watching it live; people walking down the street talking animatedly to themselves who turn out to be apparently healthy people using their Bluetooth.
The cellphone intrudes into the public and private realms, preventing holistic engagement with what is around us. Smartphones only perfect their predecessors’ ability to intrude.
The disembodying and intrusive effects of cellphones have significant implications for our relationships to the self and to others. Truly knowing and understanding others requires patience, risk, empathy, and affection, all of which are inhibited by cell phones. Cellphones also inhibit solitude, self-reflection, and rumination (formerly known as ‘waiting’ and ‘boredom’), which I think are essential for living a good life.
Long before cellphones, human beings were good at diverting themselves from disciplined attention. ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,’ observed the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ This propensity for diversion was notably confirmed in a recent study where subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than occupy themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Pascal believed that the height of human dignity is thought, and that the order of thought begins with oneself, one’s creator, and one’s end. He linked this kind of thought inextricably to genuine rest and happiness. Avoiding a cellphone allows, for me, space for thinking and so enables a richer, more fulfilling way of life. With fewer tasks to perform and preferences to satisfy, life slows to a pace compatible with contemplation and gratitude.
A cellphone-free life not only helps to liberate the mind, but also the body. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras presents a different view of human nature from Pascal: ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ We can be pretty sure that Anaxagoras was not anticipating the advent of smartphones. On the contrary, refusing a cellphone enables one to use one’s hands to carry out meaningful activities (playing the piano, gardening, reading a book) in such a way that one is fully absorbed in those activities, so that they reach their height of meaning.
Without a mobile phone, it is easier to concentrate on what is in front of me: my spouse and children, my work, making dinner, going for a walk. I try to choose my activities thoughtfully, so when I do something, I don’t want to be somewhere else. What cellphone users call multitasking does not interest or impress me.
Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82 per cent of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89 per cent of cell owners still use their phones in those situations. Refusing a cellphone guarantees that I won’t use it when I shouldn’t.
Some people will insist that if I’m going to refuse a cellphone, I should also refuse a regular telephone. It is true that using a landline introduces similar disembodying, mediated experiences as to mobile phones. But there have always been natural and physical limits placed on the use of a regular phone, which is clear from the name ‘landline’. The cellphone’s mobility introduces a radical form of communication by making its alienating effects pervasive. I want to protect what unmediated experiences I have left.
The original meaning of ‘connect’ indicated a physical relationship – a binding or fastening together. We apply this word to our cellphone communications now only as metaphor. The ‘connections’ are ethereal; our words and thoughts reach the upper regions of space next to the cell tower only to remain there, as our devices disconnect us from those with whom we share space. Even though we have two hands, I’m convinced that you can’t hold a cellphone and someone else’s hand at the same time.
Philip Reed is an associate professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York State. His scholarly interests are in ethics and moral psychology. This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under a Creative Commons licence.