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Opening Arguments

Throw him a (land) line

Cellphoneless and proud of it:


I don't own a cellphone because I don't want to disappoint Henry David Thoreau. Most people read Thoreau because a teacher made them or because they are being served herbal tea at a New England bed-and-breakfast in an inspirational mug. I stumbled upon Thoreau about 15 years ago. His words formed me at an age when I was ready to be formed. There are livelier heroes to have in your 20s, but for all his 508 touchdowns Brett Favre does not fill your imagination with the deeper possibilities of life. Especially if you can't play football. But, for me, Thoreau's words, so slowly read that first time, seemed like the key to unlock reservoirs of willpower, to cope with the overwhelming technological distractions of a world even more distracting than his was 150 years ago. And so the decision not to own a cellphone was always easy for me. Thoreau wouldn't have had one (he wrote, after all, that things "are more easily acquired than got rid of"). Neither would I. End of story.

While many believe technology has made us kinder, smarter and more connected, Thoreau wouldn't think so. Our inventions "are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York." His road to the improved end was straightforward. It was "Walden's" famous shout: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

Pretty lame reasoning, I think. If "merely improved means to an unimproved end" is your governing philosophy, why have a car instead of a horse and buggy? It merely gets you to the same old place quicker. Why take a plane to Europe instead of an ocean liner? Why have books and recorded music, since they are just more efficient ways of experiencing stories and music than going to live performances and listening to folk tales? Why have newspapers instead of town criers or TV and movies instead of stage plays, the Internet instead of everything it performs better than? Why have . . .

. . . Well, you get the idea? "Simplify, simplify, simplify?" If your read his story, he offers an elaborate explanation of exactly how he gets along without a cellphone, which includes finding a payphone that works, "occasionally" borrowing a cellphone and having "understanding friends" who apparently know not to call him at certain times and patiently wait for him to read all his email so he's up to speed with everybody else. Sounds to me like he's made his life more complicated, not simpler, as indeed is the fate of anyone who fails to adapt to the technology almost everybody else is using.

This isn't an argument against, say, having a technology-free vacation by spending a week in a cabin on a lake without phone, TV or the Internet. In fact, I'd highly recommend it. Byt deliberately staying a step behind everybody else isn't simplicity. It's just stupid.