09.04.09

Death by Texting

Are we a nation of cellphone-addicted gasbags? Lee Siegel on the epidemic of deadly crashes caused by distracted drivers who can't put down their iPhones—and why the death toll will only rise.

Give me liberty or give me death? Try giving me loquacity and giving me death. We are, literally, talking and texting ourselves into oblivion.

In April, two people in the Seattle area were killed by a train in separate incidents while talking on a cellphone as they crossed railroad tracks. That same month, a truck driver in Florida admitted that he was texting just before he drove into a schoolbus, killing a student. Around the same time, a young man was hit by a car and killed as he talked on his cellphone while crossing the street in Montclair, New Jersey.

The train crash that took 25 lives last September in Los Angeles is believed to have been caused by an engineer who was texting on his cellphone. Last May, a texting engineer caused another train crash in Boston, injuring 50 people. Texting is still suspected in the DC subway accident that killed nine people in June. An air-traffic controller talking on a good, old-fashioned landline is believed to be one of the causes of the fatal collision last month between a plane and a helicopter over the Hudson River. The grisly list of death-by-communication goes on and on.

The impulse itself to use a cellphone is really just short of homicidal. The expectation—it’s become a right—that you can call anyone at any time is, socially speaking, a violent annulment of another person’s complicated and timebound existence.

It’s gotten so bad that a local police department in Wales has made a shockingly graphic film illustrating the consequences of texting as you drive. It’s an Internet sensation. (Of course, half the people viewing it are probably watching it while they drive.)

Few of us take the time to notice how yesterday’s fresh idea hardens into today’s oppressive banality. But the idea that technology makes us free has now become a shopworn notion in need of drastic revision.

So accelerated has communications technology become in the last 15 years that we don’t realize how it has been almost entirely driven by the profit-motive beyond our human needs. But rather than being the miraculous gizmos of iconoclasm and progressivism, our GPS’s are driving us into walls, our computers are making us more isolated than ever before, and our cellphones are distracting us to destruction.

Whatever happened to the communications revolution? It was supposed to liberate humankind from, I guess, telephones into a brave new age of, I guess, talking to whomever we wanted when and where we wanted. Texting contributed a further dimension of—hmmm, what is it, ah yes!—text to the new revolution. Now humans could communicate with each other without having to be exposed to anything human, like physical presence or tone of voice. There was no longer any need to fear a reaction to what we were expressing. Or at least to experience a reaction.

And that’s the fatal problem.

I have a fondness for the Annalistes—French historians who believed that the reality of history was to be found not in great events and ideas, but in the influence of more mundane factors like climate, geography, and technology. In the Annaliste perspective, the catastrophic nature of the cellular transformation would be an inevitable result of the nature of the technological medium.

For our wish to have a human-free experience in an SMS exchange creates an actual, utter disregard for other human lives, and for our own. The train engineer who is texting a woman because he wants to flirt, or his friend because he needs attention, does so because he doesn’t want them to be involved in his need for them. At that moment, he can put them in his mind without bringing them into his life. It’s no wonder that, at that moment, he is also indifferent to the passengers in his care. The same solipsistic recklessness applies to the cellphone-distracted driver.

The impulse itself to use a cellphone is really just short of homicidal. The expectation—it’s become a right—that you can call anyone at any time is, socially speaking, a violent annulment of another person’s complicated and timebound existence. It’s a total denial that people exist outside our need for them. They don’t even exist on the same sidewalk, as we bump into them while talking on our phones.

Yet there is something even more infantile, and more fundamentally disturbing, about talking and texting while we go about our daily business of mobility and work.

The compulsion to text, especially, puts us at the center of the world’s attention. The nice thing about texting is that someone texts you right back. (They’d better.) And so you are constantly being wanted and needed. The little vibration from your BlackBerry or iPhone against your leg has become a pleasurable biological sensation in its own right—like the sudden release of endorphins or dopamine into your brain. That persistent cellular tingle against your flesh, or ring in your ear, is just like being a baby again. You are being summoned and caressed all the time.

The two experiences that keep us together are love and work, and the essence of both experiences is self-surrender. You lose yourself in a person, or in an activity. The religious philosopher Martin Buber had an epiphany of this when, as a young boy, he stood stroking a horse. After a while, he forgot himself, his hand, the repetition of what he was doing and felt only the horse. The animal became a “thou” instead of an “it”—a being to be experienced rather than an instrument of gratification.

If the texting patterns of air-traffic controllers and train engineers are any indication, the self-forgetful vigilance of work is being slain by our wonderful new technology of communication. And the respect for others' lives—what you might call generalized love—is being abolished by the cellphone-behind-the-wheel.

Maybe it’s time to replace the “i” in iPhone with a “thou.”

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.