Cell Walls. . .Or, Can You Look Me in the Eye?


By Shawn StJean

Much has been lamented, by cultural critics, concerning the unintended side effects of 21st-century technology.  Lately, I’ve begun to notice just how alienating the cellular telephones of friends, students, and just about anybody one engages in conversation can be.  Not only are the manifold apps and services that the newest handheld screens bring to light every day, literally held in the hands of some, while others watch–thus unwittingly flaunting a “tech gap” defined, at bottom, by how one chooses to spend money–but users often exhibit a particular brand of Boethian evil (evil that arises unintentionally).  Just as we once free-associated during a normal, spoken conversation, but had to await our turn to speak, in order to share the new insight (those who interrupted were likely to find themselves less frequently in the company of conversation partners,) NOW the person with the new thought can instantly raise a screen (synonymous with “shield,” to me a more chilling version of the mirrored sunglasses effect) and dart her eyes down, in quest of 3rd-party information.  To the other party, still speaking, this takes on the appearance of having lost interest, or split it.  We have no idea if the phone-owner is receiving a call, texting a third person, reading a transcribed voicemail, or so on.  Naturally, not wanting to interrupt the flow of talk, the user neglects to inform us, and we are faced with a figurative brick wall (cell phones, in enlarging their screen sizes, have again begun to vaguely resemble two-dimensional “bricks.”)  And as Pink Floyd once opined, “All in all, we’re all just bricks in a wall.”

The self-enclosing narcissism of this phenomenon is not only, apparently, completely acceptable these days, but unacknowledged as such by most people.  Type “texting” into an image-search engine: 90% and more of all the photos you’ll see are from the point-of- view of the user. Any interlocutor, present but forgotten, fades out of reality.  Replaced by a reflective surface.

I often answer my students, explaining my old-fashioned lifestyle choices–why I don’t text, watch very little television, use Powerpoint presentations, or carry a phone on my person–that it looks to me like communication technology has done as much or more to drive folks apart as to bring them together.  For example, an e-mail message is as likely to be misunderstood as understood (the old Deconstructors like Derrida would have a field day here).  Having never sent a text, I can only imagine it’s worse.  Take the following three-word message: “WHERE ARE YOU?”  Is the questioner idly curious, or demonstrably angry or upset?  Should I be nervous in answering?  Did I miss an appointment?  Without an aural tone and inflection to cue me, how am I to know?  Dude, I’m here! . .on the other end of this phone.

I’ll refrain at this juncture from pursuing a related discussion of the decline in literacy skills that the recent e-mail-to-phone apps encourage. Salutations, signatures, thank-yous, well-wishes, grammar, spelling, punctuation, basic politeness.  Suffice it to say, bid Goodbye to them all.  Instead, embrace the single letters “C,” “R,” and “U,”–but very little “Y?,” (as well as nine or ten other inconvenient letters, along with the good-ole skill of critical inquiry)–as if the world were suddenly transmogrified into some perverse version of Sesame Street.  Oh, and get ready to speak in cliche’s. Then write in them, and finally think in them, ‘cuz that’s all you can do, ‘Coz.  But we like it “short and sweet,” anyway.  I NO, right?