The Downsides of Cell Phones

Version of January, 2024

Struck-through sentences are retained from an older version. Updated text follows.

Ever since I read In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Gerry Mander (his real name) in 1992, I’ve tried to analyze, understand, and remain conscious of the downsides of technologies, even – especially – as they’re introduced. Invariably in our society, these technologies are marketed and pushed on us by for-profit corporations. Therefore, the upsides are trumpeted and the downsides are ignored, not analyzed, and knowledge of them is actively suppressed. The likes of Apple and Google will never share anything like this document with you.

Being mindful of technology allows us to consciously choose whether to adopt each new technology as it comes along using the wisdom of our discriminating awareness. I failed to do this when email came along and I now spend at least an hour every day sitting in front of a computer doing email. But I have largely drawn the line there. Today, I eschew cell phones and all forms of social media1 because I see the damage they are causing to our lives, environment, and society.

Anyone can tell you how wonderful, how empowering, how cool, or how connecting, these technologies are supposed to be. (The companies that profit from them have made sure of that and are proud of you for believing them!) Swimming in a sea of pro-tech propaganda, it takes effort to have a balanced analysis and make conscious choices about how we are to conduct our lives. This document is an effort to provide some balance.

Because there are so many cell phones, there are no longer pay phones for those of us who don’t have one. If I’m stranded on the road or whatnot, my only option is to approach a stranger, knock on someone’s door, a situation that makes many people fearful in our society and could even get you killed!

You can’t look up people’s numbers any more. (There’s no directory for cell phone numbers! That’s insane.)

People don’t know their own number.

People don’t know other’s numbers (because it’s stored in the phone).

People change numbers so often, it’s hard to keep up. (This is better today with “portable” numbers but it used to be terrible.)

When you lose your phone, you lose everyone’s numbers (along with God-knows how much other information). (Some manufacturers are now offering “cloud” backup and migration services but these come with the downside of yet more lost privacy.)

People have forgotten that you can still look up people who have landlines. It’s called the phone book. (People don’t even seem to keep the phone books they get delivered.)
Phonebooks are no longer even published!

People won’t leave their number on my answering machine because they assume my phone stores it (which is doesn’t).

People call you back before listening to your message because it’s so easy and fast to do so and hard to check the message. Argh!

People don’t clear their full inbox, check their messages, or record an outgoing message – I guess because they don’t know how to do so? (These things generally didn’t happen with answering machines.)

The lack of an outgoing message means you often don’t know if you’ve reached the right person before leaving a message.

The sound quality is often bad and it’s worse for the person on the receiving end (even if they have a land line). I find myself straining to understand people. It’s very fatiguing and I don’t want to talk to them. I thought new technology was supposed to be superior.

The sound quality of telephone interviews found on radio programs and podcasts has deteriorated severely, to the point that some shows are unlistenable in my opinion. (I’m an audio engineer and work in college radio. It’s infuriating to have new technology that’s worse than the old.)

Calls get dropped or the sound cuts in and out.

You receive calls with no one on the other end. Many of these are due to poor cell connections from the person calling you.

There are (purposely) long frustrating generic outgoing messages on many cell systems. They were made slow and long to increase your air charges!

The cost is often greater than land lines.
Monthly charges for (some) cell service can now be cheaper than landline charges. But remember that, with cell service, you’re now on the phone upgrade treadmill. When you add in having to replace the phone every few years, your cost may be greater. (It certainly is with typical data charges added.)

Having found this great new tap to put on our bank accounts, the big telecomm companies have gotten so consolidated, large, and powerful that they now rule our legislatures against our interests! e.g., States often give telecomms monopolies! Some states have outlawed municipal internet systems – to prevent competition to the telecomms! The feds seem to allow every telecomm merger they want. At the urging of telecomms, net neutrality is currently gone (though organizations fighting for the interests of the people are fighting back mightily). If you think net neutrality rules are a bad thing, you’ve been duped by industry propaganda which they use your money to create!

1960s and 70s vintage landline phone

The constant pressure and, finally, necessity, to upgrade (pay again for) your phone and service. (For younger readers, the old “Ma Bell” landline phones were robust and used to last decades.)

Everyone thinks you have to have one. And it has to be a smart phone. Bullshit.

Mountains of discarded phones are causing a disposal/pollution problem. (Again, the old Bell System phones lasted forever.)

Rare minerals in the phones are a limited resource.

Mining for the rare minerals in the phones is causing environmental destruction & pollution.

People are exploited and dying from the dangerous and poorly-regulated mining for the rare minerals in the phones.

Political havoc and violence is resulting from the mining of rare minerals in the phones.

Cell towers uglify our landscape.

Radio frequency (RF) radiation from phones appears to be hazardous and may cause brain and other cancers. The most common places people hold their phones – against their heads and in their pockets – are right next to their brains and gonads. Lovely. (Children are particularly vulnerable. They should not have cell phones – for many reasons.)

RF radiation from cell towers has added considerably to the RF flux that bathes us all, even non-cell users.

People drop their phones, breaking them. (Again, the old Bell phones were nearly indestructible.)

People lose their phones and the phones are stolen (with all the loss of personal information, as well as money, that implies). I have yet to lose a landline phone.

People are rude, loudly using their phones in public places. (This has gotten better in recent years as culture catches up with the new technology.)

The phones ring during talks, concerts, meetings, and other events, causing disruption. (Again, this has gotten better along with the next couple of items.)

People answer their phone even while speaking face-to-face with you, being rude.

People check and use their data phone services while they’re with you, even while speaking face-to-face with you; very rude.

Everyone now seems to walk around (or sit) with their faces glued to their phones (called “phubbing” by some). While supposedly being “more connected,” we’re, in fact, losing touch with our surroundings, our real-world activities, and the people that are in our actual physical proximity.

I realized recently that, if I were to visit a friend at their house and they were to suddenly collapse with a medical condition, I could no longer dial 911 by quickly and simply picking up what was once the easy-to-find and universally-understood landline phone in every home. Because I don’t carry a cell phone, I’d have to find my friend’s and figure out how to make it dial 911. (I believe that phones are required to allow access to 911 calling without having the access code but I’d still have to find the phone and figure out how to do that with their particular model.) Meanwhile, my friend could die.

People have to use their damn smart phone for everything and it’s often more complicated and takes longer than if you just wrote it down on a piece of paper (or whatever).

People use their phones for everything – instead of the former individual items they’ve replaced with it – and the quality often isn’t as good, is less convenient or reliable. (e.g., flashlight, audio recorder, camera, physical address book, pad of paper)

Some people don’t know how to use the features of their phone (partly because they change so often or are complicated) and I find myself sitting there twiddling my thumbs while they stare at their phone trying to figure it out.

I’m now reluctant to call people for fear I’m disturbing them or that they’ll pick up while driving.

People no longer install a door bell for their apartment. If you don’t carry a cell phone, you’re SOL! (Try throwing rocks up at the windows.)

People no longer use my door bell, calling me instead. By the time I go in the opposite direction of the door to get the phone and find out that they’re at my door, I could have been down at the door! Or – they’re not even quite at my house yet and call from their car. Now what? I have to wait for them to call me again? Or maybe they can just ring my door bell when they get here!

People text my landline (which can’t receive texts) then get frustrated that I didn’t respond.

Someone once texted my landline early in the morning (middle of my night) from a system that apparently detected that it was a landline and converted the abbreviated text with a very bad computer-sounding text-to-speech algorithm. It was one of the weirdest nastiest calls I’ve ever received (and it woke me up). I could barely decode it to figure out what it was and who it was from.

Smart phones are highly addicting. For many people, they’re worse than tobacco or heroin.

Children are allowed to become addicted to smart phones and other mobile devices, presumably at least altering their brain development and certainly altering their behavior and activities. Who knows the consequences?

With the popularity of texting, Twitter, and other internet and mobile device-based communication media, our society has become fragmented in our chosen communication domains. I don’t text or Tweet. Many people now don’t use email. We can no longer communicate! I thought these things were supposed to make us more connected.

People now have yet another thing – and a particularly complicated, multifaceted, attention-grabbing and addictive thing – to pay attention to while driving… instead of driving. Texting while driving (as just one nasty example) is a major problem and endangers everyone. I personally know someone who’s daughter is now a paraplegic due to an accident from texting while driving. Agh!

The phone you now carry with you everywhere is both a tracking device and a bug. More than that, data collected from your smart phone usage can characterize you in ways you don’t even understand. All your friends and contacts, your communications, your likes and dislikes, your photos and videos, what you buy, what you see, hear, and read, your medical conditions, your sexual proclivities (if you do that), your travels, your bank accounts and wealth, your political beliefs and affiliations, your hobbies, etc. etc.. All this information is known about you and shared behind your back due to your smart phone use. It’s collected by the telecomm that you pay good money to and it’s shared with government agencies. (The corporations are chartered and regulated by the government. They have limited power to fight it even if they wanted to – which they don’t; their purpose is to make money!) Edward Snowden revealed to us that, just with an email address, he could call up a custom-generated electronic dossier on any individual, even politicians, even the president. In 1984, George Orwell envisioned a TV-like device in your home that did a few of these things. Now we pay to carry one around with us everywhere! It’s beyond the worst fears Orwell imagined. Even political activists do this. It’s insane!

And speaking of activists, most have become so dependent on their phones for organizing and communicating that they’re completely vulnerable to having all their operations shut down as soon as they get to be too much of a threat. The government just has to order the service shut down. This has happened in many countries when people start getting too uppity. Many Facebook and Twitter accounts have already been shut down in ours. The situation we’re in, with cell phones – and the internet generally – has been called, “Turn-key totalitarianism.” And, like the proverbial frog in heating water, it’s getting less turn-key and more actual all the time, while we blithely pay through the nose for, and carry around, our bug/tracking/dossier-generating devices, becoming more and more dependent on them. Pathetic…

1. Social media requires a whole other document!