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  • jmrogers514

Tethered

On April 23, I arrived at the diminutive Manchester, NH airport at 5:42 a.m. for a 7:07 a.m. jaunt to Newark en route to the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund cohort event in New York City. Bleary-eyed, I was forced to check my bag, which was one inch too deep for the carry-on measurement. Depending on who and how it’s measured, I have carried it on in the past. Bag checked, I made a beeline to Starbucks for an English Breakfast tea and then finally sat down to text my husband, Jim, that I was through security and ready to board.


Feeling around in my purse, I didn’t find my cell phone. Sometimes it slips under something. I emptied the contents onto the faux leather seat, now starting to panic. Then I remembered I used it the previous night to listen to a sleep meditation. The damn thing was on my night table!


I approached a kind-looking security officer, also getting his morning caffeine, and asked to borrow his device. 


“I’m sorry, but you have to come back,” I told Jim. “I can’t possibly go to NYC without my phone.” Fortunately I have an infinitely understanding husband and we live just 20 minutes from the airport. He was almost home by this time. 


Sipping my tea and gazing out the massive windows at planes taxiing left and right, massive mottled clouds, and runway personnel waving orange wands, I thought about this deal with the devil. To be human in the 21st century, we must know where this digital block is at all times. We can no longer move around the world without knowing it’s securely in a purse or pocket. The awareness that I could have boarded a plane without it felt like a physical attack on my nervous system. 


My friend Bill Softky, a neuroscientist, has written about this phenomenon many times. He tells me, “No other animal carries anything they have to keep track of 24/7. Our nervous systems are not meant to keep track of something so expensive, breakable, and full of critical information. We do it now because society creates a need.”


The 25 minutes it took Jim to return felt like two hours. My thoughts then pivoted to the children—not my children who received their phones at the end of 8th grade and didn’t have social media accounts until their early twenties. Today’s children, I sadly surmised, will be tethered to this thing for their entire lives. The rest of their lives. 


I remembered the day in 2007 when I was sitting in a business networking meeting with my colleague, Kamal, a computer scientist. I owned a flip phone at the time. Kamal stood up with his shiny new iPhone. He held it up with pride. “Pretty soon your whole life will be in here,” he said. “You will store photos and music here, access job applications, pay bills, find directions.” At the time I couldn’t imagine what the smartphone would become. But I do recall thinking, “This is not good!”


Some of us remember a time when we were not tethered. It's like a media Hunger Games. Sixties and seventies tech ethicist Marshall McLuhan understood media as “an extension of man.” He predicted the World Wide Web nearly 30 years before its emergence. With his statement that “the media is the message,” he proposed we study the medium itself and not its content. I wonder if we can do that today—look at all the conveniences that cell phones afford us, but ask what is the impact of being constantly tethered to this one digital block.


Jim brought my phone back to the airport. I was grateful for the ability to pull up my boarding pass, text him when I landed, and view the event agenda on my phone.

As Action Network members, we strive to give children a time when they are not tethered. This is the greatest argument for delaying devices for children. Let them have a time of freedom. Let them be free for as long as possible.

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