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Embracing cellular angst

By Louis Rene Beres

"It’s getting late; shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply not wanted at all?”

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W.H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety”

We have all witnessed the visibly deep pleasure enjoyed by cell phone talkers. For unaccountable Americans, there is little that can compare to the ringing ecstasy of a message. Reciprocally, absolutely nothing can seemingly produce a greater private darkness than the despairing reverberations of cellular silence.

Perhaps half of the American adult population is literally addicted to cell phones. For university students in particular, a cell phone, now offering access to related social networks, promises far more than efficient personal safety or a simple way to “stay in touch.” Conversing or messaging on a cell phone can also grant convenient therapy. After all, it permits both the caller and the called to feel more important, more valuable, less anonymous and less alone.

The known universe is probably billions of light years “across.” Yet, here, in America, and elsewhere as well, most are still desperately afraid to become individuals. “Why bother?” they reason. Why take the risk?

The cell phone and related social networks have not caused users to display fear and terror. They are just a tell-tale instrument, a diagnostic that can help to identify genuinely primal angst. Without it, such core apprehensions might otherwise lie dormant.

A leitmotif emerges. There exists a universal human wish to remain unaware of oneself. But this hope leads individuals to stray dangerously from their true personhood, and toward the presumed security of the “herd.” Sometimes, when a terror gang and a sports team effectively become competitors for group loyalty, any herd will do.

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We humans sometimes fear exclusion more than anything, sometimes even more than death. This is a vitally important personal calculus, one that may be largely responsible for war, terrorism and genocide. The human need to belong can become so overwhelming that many will literally kill others — any others — rather than face personal isolation.

The inner fear of loneliness expressed by cell-phone addiction gives rise to another problem, one with a distinctly special significance for university students. Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or literature or medicine or philosophy, can ever take place without some loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass — to be tolerably separated from what Freud called the “primal horde,” or what Nietzsche termed the “herd,” or Kierkegaard the “crowd” — is actually indispensable to exceptional intellectual development.

I belong. Therefore I am. Turning Descartes’ reasoning on its head, this pitiful adage best expresses the sad credo of cell-phone addiction. In essence, it presents a not-so-stirring manifesto that social acceptance is utterly immanent to personal survival.

Cell-phone addiction is less an ascertainable illness than an imagined therapy. Ultimately, in a society filled with garrulous devotees of a rehearsed ecstasy, it tantalizingly offers electronic links to satisfying forms of “redemption.”

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The noisy and uneasy mass has infested our solitude. Upon most of us, especially perhaps in universities, the telltale traces of herd life may already have become indelible.

Life is always death’s prisoner. Until we can face this overriding truth, we can never truly experience our limited and numbered moments with any intense pleasure. Today, despite our manifold efforts at cell calls, tweets and emails, our personal doubts still seem inexhaustible. This is because we continue to look to others to define who we are and what we might still become.

The immense attraction of cell phones and related social networking “apps” derives largely from our machine-like existence. We Americans typically celebrate a push-button metaphysics. Absolutely every hint of passion must follow a narrowly uniform pathway. Understandably, we still insist that we are in control of our machines.

Strictly speaking, this is correct. But now there is also an implicit reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate pantomime between users and used. Predictably, our techno-constructions are now making a machine out of both Man and Woman. In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, we now generally behave as if we have been created in the image of the machine.

Cell phone addiction is merely the most visible symptom of a much deeper pathology. The basic “disease” that we now suffer is a painful incapacity to ever be at real peace with ourselves. In our universities, where this sort of illness can choke off the future as well as the present, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier call for “high thinking” has already been supplanted by the banal syllogisms of corporate calculations and entrepreneurial logic.

“I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” sang Bob Dylan. Unwittingly, this verse may reveal a great deal about fear and trembling on the cell phone.

Louis Rene Beres GS ’71, a professor of international law at Purdue, is the author of many books and articles dealing with military strategy, intelligence matters, international relations and international law. He owns a cell phone, but not one that is “smart.”

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