Friday, April 23, 2010

Progress, Chesterton, and Why I Hate Cell Phones

"Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good-" At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not much of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is a war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark". -G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

"Sarah, do not forget your cell phone.."

"Oh! Yeah, okay, I have it."

" it charged?"

"Hmm, let's see, nope, it's completely dead."

"Okay, you have time to charge it up before you leave, go plug it in".


(I leave and forget the cell phone, happily charging away only to die once more unused in my purse).

Reading through Chesterton's Heretics has been a treat; though not the best book to read reclining in bed, for I am always needing to underline and draw exclamation points in the margins. Of the ideas I've encountered so far, his idea of progress has grabbed my attention thoroughly. I will not butcher his arguments by attempting to give them in brief, but I will respond to what I've picked up from them through the lens of my widely-known distaste for cell phones.

There are many proclaimed benefits of carrying a cell phone. You can call a tow-truck if your car breaks down. People can always get a hold of you. Your spouse can remind you to pick up milk at the store. Your business depends on communicating with you. Parents can call their children to make sure they're okay.

The only negative comments I hear about them are: people yakking on their phone, spoiling the ambiance of a nice restaurant or theater event, people injuring others because they are talking on the phone while driving, or as I heard recently, teens texting alarming amounts during school.

But what of the philosopy of cell phones? Is it good to be completely available to whomever might dial your number at any time? Is it good to render obsolete the Good Samaritan who might help you change a flat? Is it good to exchange face-to-face communication for fast, efficient calls or texts? Is it good for a phone call to give us peace about our children, instead of seeing the slump of their shoulders or their worried brow and truly knowing? Do we have any evidence that the "progress" we've encountered in mobile communication is any type of progress at all? If so, towards what? Doesn't "progress" mean that we're going somewhere specific?

"What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself. It is as if a man were asked, 'What is the use of a hammer?' and answered, 'To make hammers'; and when asked 'And of those hammers, what is the use?' answered "To make hammers again'." -Ch.II Heretics

I am not available to you all the time. I am only available always to the One who made me. People for thousands of years were regularly and normally out of touch. News traveled slowly, and a moment in the garden was a sacred moment. There would be no piercing siren screaming, "Time to pay attention to me, now!!!" Life with children is sufficiently full of interrupted moments; why should I invite more? Can my soul enter into God's presence when it is resigned to dash across the house at the first electronic whine?

What is our philosophy of cell phones? Have we thought this through? You may argue that they've saved lives. Certainly...they've also cost them. We cannot filter their value with their effects; we must go full circle, back to the start. Back when we thoughtlessly made the decision to tear down the lamp-post; hardly thinking what it meant. "Everyone is tearing them down these days; you see, darkness is the new light. You're crazy not to do so as well".

Philosophy matters. "For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to the use the word 'progress' than we."

So, if you call and the phone rings and rings, do not mistake, I may very well be home; but I am cuddling my son or sharing a laugh with my daughter, or I am laying down in a particularly nice sunbeam. It does not mean that I care not for you or your concerns; only that I care too for sacred moments and not dashing away from them. And that, to me, is progress; toward a goal I can identify and march towards.