Everyone seems to believe that the cell phone is an instrument conducing to personal safety. And, in a narrow sense, this is certainly true. Many a parent breathes more easily after conferring a phone upon a son or daughter who must travel alone.
But what is it that makes one alone? Doesn't the widespread use of cell phones, in our cultural milieu, tend to thicken a little further that mutual insulation between us by which society becomes a less hospitable and less safe place? Each of us becomes less inclined to seek help from those immediately around us, and the habit of offering help weakens. For people who pass each other with cell phone attached to ear, the important items of business including the sources of help always seem to be elsewhere, and there is not much room for attention to the immediately surrounding social context. The question "Who is my neighbor?" becomes harder and harder to answer.
But let me clarify what I am and am not saying. I'm not saying that you shouldn't give your son or daughter a cell phone. I can imagine situations where I would do it. This would have the immediate virtue of contributing to the safety of a loved one. But if I were not also working consciously against the unhealthy tendencies of the larger context that necessitated the phone, and to which the phone itself all too naturally contributes, then I would be adding my small share to the miseries of society. I would be making society safer only in the sense that exclusive, gated communities may make a society safer for some people, and for now.
Seeking clarity at this point is crucial because what the technology critic seems to be saying can easily provoke a justified incredulity in those who, with all good faith, are working to put more sophisticated technical resources at our disposal. "Do you really mean that, in terms of our underlying social problems, we'd be better off without cell phones and computers, and GPS locators, and space probes, and genetic engineering techniques? And even if this were true, can you possibly believe that, outside the dreams of madmen, the world's vast apparatus of technological advance could be dismantled?"
No, I believe none of those things. What I do believe is that, with our technologies in hand, we are given the freedom to construct a hellish, counter-human, machine-like society, or else a humane society in which the machine, by being held in its place, reflects back to us our own inner powers of mastery. And the difference between these antithetical movements is the difference between focusing more on the human dimensions of whatever domain we are concerned with, or on the technological dimensions. In the former case, we will recognize that the primary challenges always have to do with the development of character, insight, volitional strength, imagination, and so on; our technical activities will be valued above all for the way they can help us develop these capacities. The other, gravely misdirected approach is to focus on technological developments as if they themselves held solutions.
So, no, I don't suggest that we ban cell phones. But our society's fixation upon technological development as the very substance and marrow of human evolution has become ferocious. There is a grotesque disproportion within American culture between the terms in which we see our billion-dollar investments and the underlying real needs around us. This distortion is dangerous and needs healing a prospect that admittedly appears as unlikely today as a broad, public consciousness of recycling, pollution, and environmental issues must have seemed in the Fifties.
I can't say what our technological trajectory would look like if we were fully conscious of the issues; but it is certain that, with our attention upon the things that count, the trajectory would be radically different which is not the same as saying we should "halt all technological progress." The point, rather, is to escape the mindset that sees progress primarily in terms of technology.