Existentialism and the Cell phone

Michael - Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Entered on November 16, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

In 1846, over one hundred years before the information age, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a piece entitled ‘The Present Age.’ In it he introduced the notion of “leveling,’ where a person gradually loses their personhood; an individual their individuality. The term is apt and calls to mind a mountain’s configuration. How many mountain ranges have the exact same configuration? Answer: none. When we “level” the mountain in order to put in, say, a parking lot for a mall, how many resultant parking lots have the same configuration? Answer: most if not all.

Kierkegaard, now regarded as the ‘Father of Existentialism,’ brought up a number of causes of leveling that he felt beset his present age, but none which struck me the more than ‘talkativeness.’ It is interesting to note that he thought that in the 1840’s people talked too much. I can’t help but wonder what he would think about people today, in the present age, I mean with the advent, widespread distribution and use of the cell phone.

I’ve heard much criticism about the cell phone, from safety issues to courtesy complaints. These are annoying or downright dangerous to be sure, but no where is there any discussion on the gradual leveling it is doing to millions of people. We are primates after all—monkey see, monkey do—and by connecting with people so readily and so often, we are talking more and thinking less. It doesn’t take long for a society, a nation, a world to sound like everyone else, think like everyone else, and act like everyone else. And who benefits most by this than the marketing piranhas.

Have you ever heard a couple of college kids in a coffee shop talking? Recently I eavesdropped on one student talking to another—I couldn’t help it. In a minute’s time she used the word ‘like’ fifteen times—one ‘like’ every four seconds (with pen and paper and watch I recorded the feat). I looked at her companion for any sign of derision—surely she was as incredulous as I was—but saw no such emotion. When it was her turn to speak I was aghast to count eighteen uses of this four-letter word in sixty seconds flat! I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are so many things ‘like’ something else? Aren’t there any things best described by their differences; by their dissimilitude? Be that as it may, it seems to be a commonplace that when we talk alike, we think alike; when we think alike, we behave alike; when we behave alike, we are alike. Or rather: it’s like, we’re all the same!

Of course we are murdering the language as certain words become hackneyed and trendy far before their time. I have a poet’s ear for language and enjoy the marvelous power the word can have on me (after all, ‘In the beginning there was the Word’), but the best way to destroy an expression is ubiquity. Before 9-11, I found the word ‘surreal’ quite potent, now I cringe when I hear it. And how about this expression: ‘It’s all about…’ or ‘She’s all about…’? I hear this countless times a day and I want to pull the few remaining hairs from my head. But if anyone reduces me to one thing: ‘I’m all about Kierkegaard,’ I will surely become violent.

And this is not the only problem with cell phones. We rely on it to do our thinking, our planning; to correct our mistakes. In fact we don’t even need foreknowledge: one push of a button and we can tell someone why we aren’t where we are supposed to be, or why we aren’t doing what we should be doing, or what we forgot to tell someone, etc. etc. By instantly connecting to people we are forever attached to them, dependent on them, as self-reliance, independence and responsibility become endangered qualities.

Kierkegaard was anything but trendy, but ‘Kierkegaard’ can be—and is. Even Woody Allen has a fondness for dropping his name. The ‘Father of Existentialism’?—I imagine he would cringe at that title more than I do at ‘surreal,’ et al. and would surely say that he is not all about existence.