Communication Breakdown: How Cell Phones Hurt Communities

It was a fresh morning after a night of rain and we were hiking up into the mountains in Southern France. The plants and trees glowed with green, vibrant life. Sheep and cows were meandering in the fields, and the sky was blue, stretching out for miles. Then I heard a faint beeping noise that didn’t sound like a bird. The Italian hiker next to me had a heavy pack and was sweating profusely in the cool morning. He heard the beep and didn’t hesitate to pick up his phone; it was his mother calling to see if he was alright at the start of his hiking trip. For the next ten minutes, instead of listening to birds sing and observing the morning view, he had a conversation with someone who wasn’t there.

This was the start of a month long hike I took through northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I decided to take this break from work in part to get away from my cell phone and the computer screen. This time away offered me some perspectives on how, to paraphrase Thoreau, I had become a tool of my tools.

Before I left with my partner April on the hike, I read an interesting essay in the magazine Adbusters called "Technoslave," written by Eric Slate. In the essay Slate recalls, "Once, while I was riding on a crowded bus, the man sitting next to me threw his cell phone out the window. When his phone rang, instead of dutifully answering it, he casually tossed it away. I was stunned. He looked at me, shrugged and looked away. I had no idea if it was his, if it was stolen or if he even knew what a cell phone was. But in one seemingly careless motion, he managed to liberate himself from something that has completely consumed me."

This story resonated with me. Like so many other people these days my livelihood is based on being connected – online, or on my cell phone. But five years into what had essentially become an addiction to cell phone use, I realized that instead of keeping me connected to the world, my cell phone had set up a wall between me and the people and community around me. And I’m not the only one. When hiking through Spain, off the Verizon grid of connectedness, I reflected on how cell phone use has crept into every aspect of daily life, ironically weakening the basic human communication that is the fabric of any community.

Planet Cell Phone

Billions of people across the world use cell phones. In some European countries, the number of cell phones in use is higher than the total number of people living there. Though cell phones can be wonderful, liberating tools of communication, freeing us from the confines of an office, and providing more leisure time, they often do the exact opposite. Cell phone use has blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time, increasing stress and tension within families and between friends. As Noelle Chesley, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, explained in a report on CBS News, "The question of ‘blurred boundaries’ may become an irrelevant one for the next generation of workers, spouses, and parents because they cannot imagine life any other way." As Slate commented in his Adbusters essay, "It seems the more ‘connected’ we are, the more detached we become."

Back on the hiking trail in Spain I saw this play out in a myriad of ways. Though I was experiencing cell-freedom, throughout the trip I found myself surrounded by people, mainly Europeans, on their cell phones, texting and talking with concerned family members and friends throughout the day. People were torn between developing friendships with strangers and calling up or texting old friends and family they already knew. Similarly, back in the US, I often found myself checking my messages or making a phone call rather than striking up a conversation with a stranger at the post office or bus stop. In this way, I was cutting off potentially eye-opening conversations and new friendships. I also walked around, talking on my cell phone, ignoring my surroundings and neighborhood the same way that Italian hiker did that morning in the mountains. If we can’t talk to face to face with our neighbors, or notice the world we’re walking through now, where will cell phone use take our communities and families five years down the road?

"I text my daughter all day…all my friends, so I’m doing that all the time," Lasharn Thomas, a resident of Augusta, Georgia, told NBC News. According to a Verizon Wireless survey for the Augusta area, "close to 50 percent of its customers send and receive more than 100 text messages a week." Rick Pukis, an associate professor of communications at Augusta State University, says that texting may affect the way we interact with each other. "Text messaging has made us a very impersonal society today. They’re not communicating, not using any facial expressions, like smiling so when they get back into a situation where they’re talking to someone, they don’t smile."

With the rise of cell phone use, face to face conversations in relationships are also being replaced increasingly by text messaging and cell phone conversations. Texas A & M student William Sea, writes in The Batt that he feels widespread cell phone use and text-messaging is hurting human communication, not helping it. "Rather than face interpersonal dealings head on, we can hide behind our phones until we can talk at our convenience – or not talk at all," he writes, explaining that abbreviated communication poses new problems for articulating feelings or nuanced expression. "Is there a real problem with replacing "you" with "u?" It isn’t as though we are going to forget how to spell the word. We may, however, forget how to communicate in intelligent, thought-out sentences. When we are able to relay information without actually making an effort to articulate our thoughts, we run the risk of losing our ability to articulate information well."

Then there’s also the risk of being too connected. While I was hiking, I got lost a few times. I saw new sights and was surprised by unexpected landscapes and towns I wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Back in the US, whenever I was lost, I’d call a friend for directions on my cell phone. With a cell phone, you’re less likely to go down the wrong street and see new things or unexpectedly meet new people. Similarly, in the August issue of The Nation, Gary Younge pointed out that, "The iPhone has a new application-a GPS navigational system called Loopt. If you’re out and about and you want to know if your friends are in the neighborhood, your phone can tell them where you are and theirs tells you where they are. You’re in the loop. With technology like this, it’s a wonder anyone has affairs anymore. Total information: constant contact, anytime, all the time. There’s almost literally nowhere left to hide." Indeed, many people walking across Spain had started the hike in order to hide, to go off the map. Yet they brought their cell phones with them and we’re still very much connected.

Another reason I was having second thoughts about owning a cell phone was that this little device, like so many other products, contributed to bloody conflicts and exploitation outside of the US. As Maceo Carrillo Martinet, a columnist for New Mexico’s Daily Lobo, explains, the demand for coltan, a mineral used in cell phones, has fueled conflicts in Africa, particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the United Nations, "some rebel groups have made $20 million per month selling coltan to industry buyersÂ… In some regions of the Congo, about 30 percent of schoolchildren are now forced to work in the mines." (By the way, this same mineral is used in Sony PlayStations.)

So, when I recently returned home to Burlington, Vermont from Spain, I got rid of my cell phone, and traded in an old rusty bike for a regular landline telephone, connected to the wall and everything. Now, I go outside and don’t immediately make a phone call or check my phone. Therefore, I’ve seen things in my neighborhood I hadn’t noticed before, like a big flower garden around the block, and artwork and sculptures next to another house down the road. Now that I’m not glued to my cell phone, I’ve met new people on the street and at the supermarket, struck up conversations with neighbors I hadn’t spoken with before and talk with my friends face to face more than over the phone.

Instead of cutting me off from the world, getting rid of my cell phone has helped me become more in touch with my community. The other day, my neighbors and I marveled together at a moose running down the street toward the lake. Somehow, that moose brought the neighborhood together more than a cell phone ever did.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of the Burlington, Vermont-based publication, a progressive perspective on world events. Photo from Flickr.