Why I do not own a cellphone

Hello? Are you asked this too? "What!? No cell phone!?" It doesn't seem enough to reply, like Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." So I thought I'd enter my own testimony into the public record. Not necessarily as manifesto, polemic, or pledge-drive, and certainly with no new revelations. But just an impromptu survey to see what I think, and against which you might evaluate your own experience. This could just as easily be why I don't own a car. Or a tv. But cellphone it is, especially given a curious, recent true-life-event (recounted further along down this trail). For convenience, you can remember my points with three words: need, speed, and health.

Need is simple. I was talking with my neighbor Marc Bittner recently, author of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I asked him if he finds himself having to justify his lack of a cellphone. For sure, he agreed. Just the other day, a stranger he was talking to at a party learned he didn't own one. He smiled to me and shrugged as he relayed her shocked reaction. "What!?" she'd exclaimed. "How can you do business!?"

Could she envision how writing a book means long continuous stretches of unbroken solitary concentration? Free of distractions tugging at one like the sound of some mouse scampering invisibly at hand nearby. No, writers are not most people. As poet e.e. cummings put it, in a world trying to make each of us into anyone but ourself, we write to be no one but ourselves. So I try to write from that place where I do not own a cellphone, which is how I came into this world, and how I will one day leave.

But a writer's work is a gift. I'm fully aware a cellphone is unavoidably implied in many a job description today. And if you're speculating with your savings, selling stocks and bonds at a moment's notice, it can be crucial.

Moreover, my absence of need reflects a conscious choice, a life of voluntary simplicity. I have no idea how much money I'm saving; that's not the only bottom line to my values. I try to define a middle path between the greatest good and the greatest goods.

Not only do I not need a cellphone, but I positively enjoy my life's basis in something other than need, with need's shadings of want, craving, and greed -- plus the opposite end of its spectrum, of avoidance and aversion. In relative freedom from uncontrollable need, I base my life on breath instead: this wonderful moment, in all its unique texture, shading, and nuance. (See for yourself: be here now.)

A word more about this dimension of, for want of a better word, the spiritual (or, if you prefer, soul). A recent survey found cellphone usage as being predominately about location, saying "I'm here (X) / headed there (Y)." In his book Digital Dharma, American Sufi writer Stephen Vedro cleverly superimposed our communications technology along the chakras, energy centers running along the spine, thus forming a natural hierarchy or ranking. At the base, he infers, is security, being safe; next up, at the pelvis, is relationships. So cellphones are somewhere between those two: fairly low-level. Phones in general have such a narrow bandwidth, compared to, say, video-teleconferences carrying facial expressions. Thus emphasis, subtlety, or nuance means only talking louder (and the Internet has its array of winky "emoticon" face glyphs) which brings me to my next point.

Sum up my lack of need as positive quality of life, but I know I'll still be branded an old fogey. In this generational difference comes a qualitative factor in my decision which could be summed up under the header of speed. The apt title of the classic documentary on the seminal punk rock phenomenon spells out a trinity of modes in which media moulds its users in ways I'm so not about: Louder, Shorter, Faster.

Louder? Who hasn't walked down the street and wondered, "Are you talking to me?" -- only to turn around and see someone behind, talking on their cell like a giddy drunk unaware how loud they are. Doing damage control, we might rank the portable music-player phenomenon ("iPod") as a defensive measure against such proliferation of noise. Being beside someone else's cellphone makes one hostage to half a conversation, reducing the public sphere into a cramped telephone booth without walls. (Quaint analogy, since cellphones have made landline payphones as antiquated as carrier pigeons.) Question: pitting iPod against iPhone, who wins? (I? or I?)

Shorter doesn't refer here to the miniaturization of information technology, but rather duration. It's joined at the ankle with faster. For instance, in our fast-forward pace, Andy Warhol's original dicta that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes has been abridged to fifteen seconds. Or five. Hence, Twitter, the minimalist media measure of cellphone social networking: 140 characters (spaces included).

So I'm taking a poll: how fast do you talk? (160 words-per-minute seems the maximum speed limit on the Oral Information Superhighway.) When I have to phone for information these days, I feel like a lumbering old highway patrolman pulling some innocent young lady over, having them roll down their window, and telling them, "Excuse me, I'm an old person! Could you please speak s-l-o-w-e-r-?!" Gosh, to the Younger Generation, I must sound like a drawling John Wayne; to me, they sound like a 33 rpm record played at 45 (Alvin and the Chipmunks, say).

Is it the electricity itself that speeds us up, like a subliminal jolt of caffeine? Back in distant memory, a rural New England town was getting hooked up to phone lines. Someone took the opportunity to record the pace of daily speech, before and after phones. After phones, people spoke faster, at the general store, in private conversation, all the time. The Earth resonates at a frequency of 8 hertz (7.83 ±0.50); the electricity running through my apartment walls right now is 60 Hz. You do the math. Watt, volt, and amp have pre-empted more elemental, essential fields of human vibration, such as intuition, imagination, spontaneity.

Of course to set down ideas on the ever-accelerating pace of everyday life within the quickly obsolete medium of print can be a set-up for irrelevance in today's discourse. (Blog! Twitter!) Readers who wish to further explore this phenomenon might consult James Gleick's mass-culture critique of the acceleration of just about everything in Faster (, or even Paul Virilio's challenging studies of dromology, the logic of speed as basis of technological societies. (Under the latter rubric, I note the cellphone, like much modern technology, was incubated by the military.)

I realize I might sound, thus far, like the caterpillar who said to the other caterpillar, when the butterfly flew by overhead, "You'll never get me up in one of those!" Yet I haven't even begun to directly address the matter of health, which concerns us all. It's a contested field, but worth a sober moment.

These days, we hear talk about acceptable levels of electromagnetic fields (EMFs). But biophysicist Neil Cheery has warned there is no safe threshold level, saying EMFs "enhance cell death rates and therefore they are a ubiquitous, universal genotoxic carcinogen that enhances the rates of cancer, cardiac, reproductive, and neurological disease and mortality in human populations." Prof. Cherry and other scientist have noted that EMF pollution affects plants and animals as well. Indeed, this could well be more wide-reaching than global warming, but without a lone polar bear surfing by on a raft of ice to make the invisible pollution graphic. Lacking one such poster child, consider our children, in general.

It's two decades now since our own EPA deleted from a two-year study the finding that extremely low-frequency fields (EMF) be classified as "probable human carcinogens" alongside such notorious chemical toxins as PCBs, formaldehyde and dioxin (Time, July 30 1990). In that study, five of six case-control studies published in peer-reviewed medical literature showed children living near power lines giving off strong magnetic fields were developing cancer more readily than children who did not live near power lines.

The issue of children being more at risk is indeed graphic. Prof. Om P. Gandhi, Chair of Electrical Engineering at the University of Utah, measures brain penetration of radiation when adults use a cellphone as 30%; 50%, in a ten-year-old's brain; and 75% in a five-year-old. Dr. Michael Klieeison, of the Neuro Diagnostic Research Institute in Marbella, Spain, has shown a two-minute cellphone conversation disrupts brain activity in a child's brain for up to two hours. Is it any mystery that the ministries of health in Britain, Canada, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, and Russia warn against cellphone use by kids under 18? Yet back home Sprint has a two billion-dollar contract with Disney to market cellphones to kids under 12. (It's amusing to think how the hands of Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse just couldn't text, but scary to think at how adept are little human fingers.)

Adult or kid, cellphone radiation affects us all, whether we own one or not. Thus, we're involuntarily the biggest biological experiment in history. (Forget pre-market health tests: we are that test, now in-progress.) In that regard, worse than cellphones are their microwave towers, still signaling weird messages to our protein molecules even after we've flushed our cell down the toilet. It's like cigarettes, and passive inhalation. Cigarettes cause cancer, still they're legal. (Caveat emptor: buyer beware.) You pays your money, and takes your risk. But when a server farm of microwave dishes comes to pump more wireless waves into our neighborhood, where else do we go? Over æ of the planet has now gone wireless.

If there is indeed a cancer connection, it's not that cellphones implant cancer cells in the head, like a poison pellet insinuated into our supper. We're all born with cancer cells. It just that sometimes they proliferate far more rapidly than our natural immune system can cope with, often the result of some external stimulus. That simple fact might hold a truly sinister metaphor for cellphones as themselves a kind of cancer, ubiquitous and out of control.

But science is an art, not iron law. So you'll also hear that cellphones are as harmless as genetically modified food that carries its own pesticides. But in my book, health is more than what's told to me by a man wearing a white smock.

I'm a writer and look to the word health itself, where I find the same root as whole, and holy. (And "Hello!") So I wonder: how healthy is it to slip a sound-device against, or even into, the incredibly complex and sensitive human ear canal? Before sound reaches the drum, it's invited to resonate within an acoustic antechamber, the way perfume distills fragrance to the atmosphere.

Consider too the survival value of sound. We cannot see a saber-toothed tiger coming up from behind us in a dense thicket, but our ears can hear 360∫. Stop and notice for yourself how sounds orient you in space, near middle and far. (Hint: near might be as close as your very breath.)

While the ear reminds us we are here, society encourages us to plug up our ear canal and be anywhere else, (aka "virtual reality"), an abstract but enveloping realm of comfort, be it talking with a virtual companion or monitoring a distant, now-defunct recording session.

As well as sound, the ear is an organ of balance. Are cellphones a manifestation of what the Hopi people call koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance? I'm not against technology, per se. But I note that technology's gone from being a tool of science, to vice-versa. I think it's really neat I can use a ladder to replace a burned-out light bulb, yet I can also get by just fine on candle light, and in fact do so at least one night a week. Just as there's a Slow Food Movement, so have I my slow life. I'm a writer, but you could just say "creative." The imagination, I've found, works slowly and quietly. I agree with Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want To Write (1933). If you want to write (or just be creative), she notes you need to go slow, and large, to be open to the consoling, noble, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that are the breath of life. Not brisk as waltzing mice. So, need and speed intertwine, as do all these themes.

Last, but not least, there's multitasking. Today, people drive, eat, talk on a cellphone, and more, all at the same time. Reminds me of the title of a poem by Allen Ginsberg, circa 1966, Consulting I Ching Smoking Pot Listening to the Fugs Sing Blake. Multitasking wasn't yet a word. Originally, it referred to what a computer could do ("parallel processing"): now, people do it too. So do we serve technology, or vice-versa?

Health for me is attending to what's in front of my face, at the moment. It means just eating when eating, not reading: doing both is just an inefficient use of reading and of eating. Watch people eat in public and I think you'll notice they usually spear the next bite on their fork while chewing what's currently in their mouth, without looking, while maybe reading a newspaper (and listening to an iPod). Never fully enjoying each mouthful. Each bite, containing the whole universe. True, maybe some advanced techno-adepts are mastering the art of one-pointed multitasking. But even though there's a migration from the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving to cordless, recent studies have shown they're both multitasking (traffic is one conversation, a phone call's another), both equally dangerous. A recent front-page New York Times study (Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit, July 19 2009) by Matt Richtel, observes that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood they will crash is equal to that of someone with an .08% blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. So just as cellphone use can be a twitching addiction, so too can it be toxic, and fatal.

And that's my book report. Why I Don't Own a Cellphone by Gary Gach. Oh, and I have a personal reason too, as of late. See, I was on my bicycle, going to teach haiku at the Venice Buddhist Temple. Suddenly, this black car, zooming 15-20 m.p.h. out of a driveway, collides with my bike, catapulting me into what's been several months of slow, arduous recovery. Why is it not surprising to hear the driver was on a cellphone?

That night, she left me a sincere voicemail, saying she was praying I'd be alright. I called back to thank her, and to say I pray she never use her cellphone while driving ever again. She fervently agreed yet quickly added, in the same breath, "But it rang!!"


Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism (3rd edition), editor of What Book!? ~~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award), and translator from Korean of three books of poetry by Ko Un (Northern California Book Award, Translation). Work also published in numerous periodicals, including AdBusters, The Atlantic, Counterpunch, In These Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, Whole Earth Review, and Yoga Journal. Homepage: http://word.To