I’m in awe of mobile phones. My fascination, after many years of observation, is undiminished.
Riding on public transport, I watch the way that so many people are transfixed by their smart phones: scrolling through their emails, checking news headlines, playing games, looking at photos, listening to music. Sometimes it seems at least half the people on my tram are tuned into their phone, held in a bubble, encapsulated in another world. A chattering couple who get on the tram fall silent as each of them whips out a phone and is mesmerised. The phone is like Mandrake the magician, a snake charmer.
I’m bothered by this; it irks me that people are so slavishly captured by a technology, and that much of the content that pours out of it is, to put it bluntly, crap. Recently I was standing in a tram next to a young man who was with a young woman. Both were intently engaged at their smart phones. Their only exchange in 10 minutes was when the man showed the woman a picture on his phone of “a fat streaker” at a rugby league game. This is what our civilisation has reached in its glorious advancement over thousands of years, the apogee of the progress of liberal ideas, education and democracy: peering at fat streakers and rifling through Facebook status updates.
The truth is that civilisation has always dragged a long tail behind it, a shadow it has never cast off. The ancient Greeks, the Western cultural pioneers, were dependent on slaves and in constant tribal warfare with each other; the Romans, who kept the torch of Greece aflame, subjugated and enslaved entire peoples; Christianity repressed women and the body and persecuted minorities and heretics; technical progress and the colonisation of the “New World” resulted in the genocide of Indigenous people; the industrial revolution meant the pillaging of nature and the transformation of agrarian lifestyles to wage slavery; the contemporary globalised world has come at the price of two world wars, an enormous rich-poor divide and an accelerated plundering of the Earth’s natural resources. All progress has come at a cost and fuelled a corresponding shadow.
Modern technology, as much as it aims to improve peoples’ lives, feeds that very shadow. Perhaps we have reached the point at which we need to reckon with all the implications of our actions, with the fullness of what it means to be human, to face the shadow squarely and honestly. The stakes couldn’t get any bigger – in our time, it is the very survival of life on the planet that is the issue.
There’s a certain liberation of consciousness that’s required in this undertaking. The aura of the mobile phone is created by the human physical availability for stimulation – our complex brains and nervous systems respond to the complex stimulations technology provides. Stimulation creates distraction from the dull vacuity of modern life, from the spiritual emptiness of the work-consumption routine, from individual isolation and lack of warm social interaction, and from the sensory poverty of urban environments. American hip-hop band the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy once famously described television as a “cathode ray nipple”. In that sense, smart phones are like small, portable TVs.
The spell cast on individuals by mobile phones is itself part of a much bigger “spell” of collective psyche. When one person performs an act of some kind it has a certain resonance, but when that act enters into the general psyche its power is magnified immeasurably. Humans are at one level herd animals and respond to group dynamics – when others around me are playing with their phones, I feel an urge to do so as well. Most people most of the time are in step with a kind of mass agglomeration of beliefs, morals, thoughts, prejudices, fears, desires etc. that have evolved over the millennia. Within this, each individual has little differentiation or meaning, being simply minute threads in a vast and wide weave of social fabric. By following the conscious and unconscious norms, a person fulfils the general direction of their society.
Human history has been changed radically and immensely by individuals who have dared to step out of collective norms – the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad are just three examples – and human evolution is dependent on rupture and disjunction that lead to new, more enlightened ways of life.
In our time undifferentiated mass consciousness is immensely problematic because media and advertising, through communications technology, create powerful currents of suggestion with little aim other than the perpetuation of consumption and self-interest. The vortex of “spin” that envelops much of our culture makes it harder for us to face reality and take the difficult collective choices to heal and liberate our world.
Mass consciousness is also extremely dangerous from a planetary ecological point of view. The human footprint on Earth is enormous and it continues to grow because en masse we blindly follow along the old, rutted paths of convention; we perpetuate without discernment thought patterns and instincts that are not helpful for life on the planet. What would happen if we put a limit on the human population and decided that other species had as much reason to exist as we did? What immense changes would be set in play if we looked up from our own biological necessity and basked in the beauty of all life?
To hold a mobile phone in your hand is to be in the presence of a technology created by human minds, with all that entails. If the phone has an addictive quality it is because in some part of us our being is diminished. Like cigarettes, the habit can be kicked, but it requires a broader, fuller opening to the possibilities of life.