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Lord of the Ringtones

Friday, May 22, 2009

Are mobile devices liberating or enslaving us?

He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.

Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear.
            —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring        

That scene from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy flashes to mind during any tedious work meeting: the hand moves inexorably toward the iPhone; the urge to check email, texts, Facebook, even favorite blogs begins to overwhelm; one enters the shadowy, virtual world of online friends and welcome strangers, ever oblivious to the surrounding real world.

Such scenes are repeated daily in boardrooms, around dinner tables, on trains, and even (gasp!) on our freeways. The ineluctable pull of mobile devices and the ubiquitous cloud of connectivity tempts us away from the task at hand, rendering us invisibleor at least unavailableto the physical world around us.

Mobile devices also allow for an unprecedented level of interaction and connection, through time and space, some quite intimate.

So, what’s the problem? Well, as it was for Frodo, the temptations of the virtual world can lead us into various dangersdriving worse than if intoxicated, being rude in public (and in private), breaking the law, or opening ourselves to security risks.

Jurors in several recent court cases repeatedly violated judges’ instructions by texting their experiences or looking up information about defendants in criminal trials. The temptation to slip into the virtual world overpowered the jurors’ commonsense and the judges’ clear rules.

President Obama for his part seems to be under the spell of the Device of Power. His security detail has long implored him to give up his BlackBerry for security reasons, but the president seems adamant about remaining connected and even received his own device, specially outfitted for security purposes.

Such connectivity appears to hold eternal consequences, at least according to some religious traditions. Italian Catholics were exhorted to give up texting and other electronic distractions for Lent, traditionally a time of abstinence from favorite comforts for Catholics. And for observant Jews, the weekly Sabbath demands a blessed abstinence from all things electronic.

On the spiritual side, anyone can reference prayers, sacred texts, and fellowship with cobelievers anytime, anywhere.

So, the answer seems simple: Like the One Ring, mobile electronic devices are too powerful for mere mortals to wield without corruption. They inevitably lead to disturbance, disruption, and disaster.

Or do they?

Mobile devices also allow for an unprecedented level of interaction and connection, through time and space, some quite intimate. The authors of this article are rarely in the same city but stay in close touch through cell phone calls, email, text messages, and Facebook. Friends and classmates from years gone by suddenly appear again in our lives and give us perspectives on ourselves that are unavailable through other means.

One of us has a Gmail group that has conversed nearly daily for over four years. Ideas and suggestions from the frivolous to the life-changing course through fiber-optic cable across the country and are accessible any time.

And, on the spiritual side, anyone can reference prayers, sacred texts (in the traditional sense), and fellowship with co-believers anytime, anywhere. (One of us spent the Jewish holiday of Purim tracking the reading of the scroll of Esther on his iPhone, complete with special noise-making software. The other enjoyed Lenten prayers using this iPhone app.)

On balance, we regard mobile devices as powerful tools that enhance our lives. Sure, some folks overdo it. But as with food, fashion, and exercise, one person’s excess is another’s necessity. Even for the workaholic, a “CrackBerry” can provide a lifeline to the office, a tether that allows him to float in the ether while avoiding the stress of being cut off from decisions that may require his input.

So, we propose five simple rules for reducing the unwanted effects of CrackBerrys and the like:

(1)    Do not use while operating cars or other heavy machinery;

(2)    Establish and abide by ground rules for use at meetings;

(3)    Force yourself to quit using the devices periodically throughout the day, especially at home, in the presence of loved ones, or on weekends;

(4)    For every 20 minutes on the screen, look 20 yards into the distance for 20 seconds (at least); and

(5)    Um ... hold on a sec … just checking email ... oops! There’s a text message from my college buddy ... be right there ... Okay. Now. What was I saying?

Thomas J. Van Gilder is a physician and patent attorney in Milwaukee. Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego. They both love, and hate, their iPhones.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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