Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cell Phony: When Technology Betrays Us by Dale Boyd, Summer Intern at CPL

A Commentary on the book, Cell by Stephen King:

What if cell phones destroyed our minds and turned us all into brain-dead zombies? Leave it to Stephen King to write a book based on this idea. His 2006 book “Cell”, which is now being made into a televised movie, is the story of how one afternoon, everyone who answered his or her ringing cell phone instantly became a mindless, savage version of a human being. Ironically, many of those who saw this crazed behavior going on in the streets turned to their cell phones to call 911, thus turning themselves into brain-dead savages. These “phoners” would go on to form insect-like colonies with unusual psychic powers, leaving only the lucky few who either did not own cell phones or did not answer cell phones to try and survive the collective hives that now ruled the Earth. What an apocalyptic take on how we have come to rely on our electronic devices for information, and how the predictability of our reliance on these devices can leave us open to threats.

I send about five to ten text messages a day and almost never am without my cell phone, and as I was reading the book, the idea of my cell phone turning me into a mindless zombie made me want to take the battery out of it and lock all my doors and windows against King’s imaginary impending zombie doom. However, even as a cell phone user, I get annoyed when people put their cell phones ahead of what is physically going on around them. This is part of the dark appeal of this book, in that those stereotypical cell phone users who clog up supermarket checkout lines and swerve absent-mindedly in and out of their lane when they are texting seem to get punished by a divine act of vengeance. This is the sentiment that I perceived from the author, who specifically includes in the preface to “Cell” that he does not own a cell phone.

But why the dark appeal, Mr. King, for such a cellular social upheaval, and why is it also so terrifying? Technology has rapidly changed the way in which people communicate and socialize. It has expanded far beyond cell phones, into social networking sites like Facebook accessible by computer, and smart phones which now blur the line between phone and computer. A change in social communication also leads to changes in society. Words like “wall”, “profile”, “text”, “friend”, “tagged” and “like” now have different meanings than even a few years ago when the book was written. If King had written the book in 2010, he would have had a whole new slew of ways in which to terrify us with technology gone wrong.

Part of what makes “Cell” scary is the prominent role of electronic communication in our lives. I felt fine in the days before I had a cell phone, but once I got one, I felt almost naked without it. My phone conjoined with my wallet and keys to form a sort of Holy Trinity of my pants pockets; things I would never dream of leaving the house without. I was also fine before I got a Facebook, now that I have one, I feel uncomfortable going one day without checking it to see what messages friends and family have left for me. Things in our pockets and in our homes with screens, keys, and buttons open up many doors for us, but as soon as we become complacent and adjusted to them we can only feel deprived when we are left without them. The fact that so many people including myself rely on them for maintaining professional, personal and familial relationships makes it very disconcerting that they would ever betray us, leaving ourselves and those on our contact lists vulnerable.

Of course, it is possible and actually quite common for such betrayal to happen. While we don’t have to worry about our iPhones turning us into iZombies (I hope), human beings can get inside our cell phones and computers and try to sell us things that we do not want, pretend to be people who they aren’t, hack in to our devices and profiles to get our personal information, and even hijack our names to send viruses to our friends and families.

This happened to me once when I clicked on a Facebook message that looked like a YouTube forward from an old friend. After I that, I got an ingeniously evil virus that was designed to look like an antivirus program, and only got worse when you tried to remove it. I ended up spending $85 dollars to get it repaired, and I was left wondering if the cost of the Internet was worth the benefits.

Of course, I still use my computer, Facebook, and cell phone all the time, perhaps more than before. When I’m home from school, my computer and my phone are where my friends and family “live”. When we go without our computers and phones, we don’t miss them because we enjoy them as possessions, we miss them because we miss our social connections. Most of us do lead lives where all of our friends and family are under the same roof or in the same town. Rather, we have loved ones and professional contacts all over the nation and sometimes all over the globe. By far the most convenient way to reach them is electronically. The best thing that we can do is to be cautious and aware that other people and programs may be listening in on our electronic conversations.

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