Cell Phones Again

Some students in my morning class showed me a bit from the student paper that I had my students in the afternoon class read. The author of the piece had decided to go without his cell phone for a day. He wrote, in part:

I walked upstairs and told my roommate about my ordeal [of not using the phone]. He responded, “How would you know if any girls wanted to come over?” I just laughed in agreement, but there is a real message behind his words. People like feeling validated, feeling popular, feeling needed. Receiving and sending unproductive messages which ultimately hold no value is part of how we as a generation feel a sense of comfort and perhaps confidence. If I didn’t’t receive any messages in a day I would feel somewhat offended. Why don’t people like me enough to want to meet up, or even just say g’day? Technology is what our generation has turned to as a means of feeling a sense of togetherness. Without Facebook and a cell phone I would feel extremely vulnerable.

My students have written things very much like this for the class blog, and the students in the afternoon class seemed to very much understand what the author of the piece was saying. It was nothing new to them. So I asked, as I do now every quarter, how frequently do you check your cell for messages. The answer was: constantly. In class too, I asked laughingly because I knew the answer. Oh yes, you bet, they said. Some phones I was told have a little light that blinks every time it gets at hit, so even without actually replying to the cell a person can sit there and track the flow.

In my next class I will have my students read a bit from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Age of Access (2000) and see what they have to say. He writes in part:

” In the new world of computers, hypertext, nodes, links, and networks, the nineteenth-century idea of the self as an island–an autonomous being, solid and boundaried like the printed books and physical­cal goods bought and sold in the industrial marketplace–succumbs to a new relational self. Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard makes the point that in the electronic networks of cyberspace,” the self does not amount to much … no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations…. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at ‘nodal points’ of specific communication circuits.” Having access to multiple circuits–i.e., being connected–in” the new network economy is as important as being autonomous and propertied was in an earlier market economy.

Rifkin is writing here about the net, but the cell phone seems to jack up to another level the notion of “self” or the experience of having a self as somehow the result of inter-connectedness. When young people get a text message, they feel recognized.

I think, though, that, while of course, no self is an island, Rifkin may go too far in saying “the self does not amount to much…” The student felt vulnerable when disconnected from his phone. That feeling of vulnerability is an expression of the self.