Monday, October 26, 2009

Confessions Of A Techno-Luddite

As the weekend arrived, The New York Times carried a semi-sneering piece on the tiny and ever-dwindling number of people who still refuse to have a cell phone. It cites a study done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that finds more than 85% of all Americans now have a mobile; the Federal Communications Commission says cell phones caught on faster than either cable TV or home computers.

While Pew concludes that cell “refuseniks” generally are less educated and poorer than people who have them, it concedes grudgingly there is “a subset of adults who resist cell phones simply because they do not want them. They resent the way (cells) disrupt face-to-face conversation. They savour their moments alone and prize the fact that no one knows how to reach them.”

Exactly. Roughly 5% of Americans without cells simply don’t want one. People like me, and Gregory Han.

“It’s a luxury not to be reached when I’m out and about,” Han, a 34-year-old Los Angeles-based writer-editor, tells the Times.


The paper has a Toronto bureau but no one called me for the story. If they had, I would have been delighted to explain why I am a complete techno-Luddite: Not only do I not have a cell phone, I don’t own a BlackBerry, pager, PDA, laptop, digital camera, Webcam, iPod, iBook or, for that matter, iAnything, cordless phone, home network, WiFi, Wii, Skype, Kindle and whatever else took the world by storm yesterday. I don’t download music, movies or porn from the intertubes. I don’t bank, direct deposit or buy on-line, and avoid ATMs. My e-mail includes an instant message feature but I never activated it. For that matter, I’ve never sent a text message, visited a chat room, had a Facebook page or Twittered; no one cares that I’m leaving for lunch now or that I’ve just returned.

Who could possibly care whether anyone is leaving for lunch? And I don’t want people to interrupt me when I’m eating.

“Cell refuseniks are making a statement that they control their availability,” John Horrigan, research director at the National Broadband Task Force, speculates.


Little Protest

Maybe Horrigan is right, but I’m also making a different statement, a tiny protest that’s probably as effective as telling Lou Dobbs that immigrants are good for America: Just because technology lets you do something doesn’t mean you should or that it’s even a good idea.

Apparently, people like me are such an oddity that the on-line edition of the otherwise august and totally sober Columbia Journalism Review made note of the Times’ article.

It’s true, we are an oddity. When people ask for my cell number, they’re aghast when I explain I don’t have one, offering my old fashioned land line instead.

“No cell phone?” comes the incredulous reply. “Seriously? How do you survive without one?”

I survive just fine but Sheila Shirazi admits discarding friends who go without, telling the Times, “I don’t have the time and energy … to coordinate with somebody who isn’t mobile.”

Ms. Shirazi isn’t unique.

A few years back, a woman I was mildly interested in seeing dumped me during our first dinner together because I don’t have a cell. Over the decades, I’ve been rejected by women for countless reasons, good and goofy, but never because I refused to tote around a small piece of gadgetry. On Seinfeld, Jerry once stopped dating a woman because she ate peas one at a time; my fledgling romance was nipped-in-the-bud and died for about as rational a reason.

Get Serious

OK, I admit snatching at technology when it’s useful. I never grasped Dewey’s decimal system for library research at school but I mastered the art of crafty searching and rummage around on Google numerous times every day.

And I do see value in having a stand-by cell phone for some people: Those travelling lonely roads by themselves. Kids, so they can reach a parent quickly. The sick and disabled to get help quickly. Critical care doctors.

But come on.

I’ve followed tweeners through malls who were on cell phones the entire time. What could they be talking about? The Gap has a sale? Joey likes Deirdre? The math test was really hard?

I’ve eaten in spiffy boittes where everyone at a table was “celling” so why did they bother eating together? Hong Kong has it right: Most restaurants demand mobiles be turned off and checked with the maitre d’ before being seated.

I’ve ridden trains where cell phone users were forced to shout over the track noise, making everyone else in the car unwilling participants in the call.

I’ve sat in offices where the person across the desk wore an earpiece cell phone so I never knew if they were speaking to me or to the phone.

It’s a losing battle, I realise, my fight against cells and other techno-stuff. The 5% of us who don’t always want to be instantly connected to everyone else are like Dutch boys with our fingers in the dikes. We may stop one small leak but waves of water are washing over the top, drowning us in a sea of gizmos and gadgets.