Cell phones and cigarettes

I really enjoyed this article in the Atlantic for a few reasons. The basic premise of the article is that technology does not merely let us be the same way we were before its introduction, just faster, better, and easier. Instead, technology introduces changes in our view of what is normal and so alters our fundamental social patterns, often in ways we don’t understand. Over time though, we’ll get a handle on the technology and grow along with it. The way I like to put it is that not only does each individual person learn how to use a piece of technology, but that society as a whole learns how to adjust itself to the car, or the plane, or the iphone. And just the fact that I used the iphone as an example points to its disruptive (not necessarily bad, just profound) effect on social relations.

The author writes

As Marshall McLuhan observed, the cigarette enhances a sense of poise and calm by giving the smoker a prop, reducing social awkwardness. It retrieves tribal practices of ritual and security and obsolesces loneliness by giving everyone something in common to do, such as asking for a light.

This is absolutely right in my mind. Think about alcohol too. It lets you hold a beer in your hand and take a drink when you have nothing to say. Beer is not just something people like to drink, but rather has become a prop and an accomplice in many of our social interactions.

The overall point of the article is that smart phone use may be looked down on like cigarette users are today. I’m not sure that will happen and there isn’t too much support for that, but there is some argument for that thesis. Like, we regulate smart phones in cars, and its rude to have one go off in a concert or somber occasion. If we find out that cell phones cause cancer, then the comparison will become suddenly much more accurate.

The author also writes this, which I love:

For McLuhan, when pushed to the limits of its powers the cigarette flips into a nervous tic, an addiction. Perhaps the best way to grasp Blackberry’s legacy is by imagining a hypothetical future, fifty years hence, when compulsive Internet-connected personal devices overheat and reverse into their opposite. It’s certainly possible to accuse smartphones of such a curse already, even if we never find as certain a detrimental effect as lung cancer was to cigarettes

Not only is this a point I like, but its the language I would use. Things have a tendency to move to their opposite over time. Something like the law of social entropy or social decay. Societies that start off revolutionary crumble. Democracy becomes majority tyranny, Christianity became the corrupt octopus of the 1400s, cheap food production becomes junk food and obesity, and TV becomes soap operas and propaganda (originally people thought that TV would be a revolutionary learning tool). It seems that anything can “reverse into their opposite.” It’s not a foregone conclusion, but I find it interesting how technology, ideologies, and even social organizations all must eventually become tyrannical and destructive.

The radical conclusion I’m sometimes tempted to draw fromt his is that there is no such thing as a right government or system without the continual facility of those being governed under it to understand it, identify it, and amplify it in the right way.

Maybe the other lesson is that I need to read more Marshall McLuhan, but everyone I know who likes him says crazy things to me.


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