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Ano Domini: Unplugged and unhinged in an online world
May 12, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
Sherlock Holmes once said his friend Dr. Watson was the perfect companion because he appreciated the gift of silence.

Looking back at Victorian England surely seems quaint and bucolic compared to modern society. For some people today, silence is no longer a gift – it’s something to be avoided at all costs. To prove it, they have any number of technological noisemakers attached to their ears, whether it be iPod or cell phone variety.

How bad is this addiction? With ads splashed across the media, one company trademarked its product as “The Wireless Leash.” The device alerts people who walk away from their mobile phone so they’re never without it. One woman in the ad said she can’t live without her cell phone; it’s how she stays in touch with her friends. Another man said he couldn’t remember how many times he had to turn around and go back for his cell phone. The commercial kind of reminded me of the ankle bracelet that gets attached to those under house arrest – the one that beeps if the person ventures out of the house.

In England, they’ve even coined a new term (called a neologism) to describe being unplugged. It’s called nomophobia, the abbreviated form of “no mobile phobia.” Do you get nervous if you don’t have a signal on your cell phone? Get anxious if you’re in a place where you have to turn off you cell phone? Get a queasy feeling in your stomach at the thought of your cell phone not working or the batteries giving out? Well, you might have nomophobia.

A while back, researchers in England conducted an experiment. A number of students, ages 17 to 23, were subjected to a 24-hour media blackout. And 79 percent of them displayed adverse reactions, like distress, confusion and isolation. The report said one subject was “itching like a crackhead.”

Another participant wrote, “I am an addict. I don’t need alcohol, cocaine or any other derailing form of social depravity. Media is my drug. Without it I am lost.”

I suppose that because these kids grew up with technology and have spent their entire lives “plugged in,” it provides their social network. When that’s taken away, they can’t conceive any other form of communication, so they just freak out. One teenager in California ended up in the legal system after her parents took away her cell phone, so she attacked them with a large butcher knife.

With no other means of communication, kids can be sitting next to each not saying a word, all the while texting each other frantically. I’ve seen it happen here.

People can develop phobias over almost anything. This keeps linguists busy coming up with new words to identify them, like consecotaleophobia, the fear of chopsticks.

Even non-linguists can join in. One of the hacks at the New York Times came up with an official name for an imagined phobia: FOMO, for “fear of missing out.” The term was even picked up by the Urban Dictionary.

In his “Technocracy” column, Phil Elmore described it as the despondent feeling a person gets when someone they barely know “unfriends” them on a social media site. Or the feeling of inadequacy a person feels when a complete stranger leaves a snarky comment on one of their YouTube videos.

That’s what happened to Rebecca Black after she posted a song featuring herself on YouTube, called “Friday.” I’ll be kind and say it was a sophomoric piece of drivel. And yet, the video got thousands of hits, I suppose from people who just can’t avert their eyes from a train wreck.

Then the 14-year-old whined about the insensitive comments from others who also thought the song was stupid. As Elmore said in his column, “Are you a wilting, hand-wringing, self-absorbed pansy?”

Still, true believers insist that FOMO is real. Their media posts detail how they feel left out if something interesting happens and they aren’t part of it. So they remain wired and go to every event, lest they be labeled uncool for missing out. They’re afraid they just might make a wrong decision about how they spend their time.

The hack at New York Times can call it FOMO or social media disorder or anything else. The diagnosis is incorrect.

FOMO isn’t a disorder, an affliction or a condition. It isn’t even a stressing agent in a technological world. It’s weakness that just produces oversensitive melodrama.

I’m one of those people who self-describe as “old school,” although others might call it antediluvian. I still have a land line. I don’t have a cell phone because frankly, I sometimes like to get away from people and just enjoy the silence. That’s hard to do when tethered to an electronic leash. It’s enough to make some people start barking.

Am I missing out? I don’t think so. When children are small, they hate taking naps. They probably think they’ll miss out on something interesting while they’re asleep. Later in life, they realize they weren’t missing anything at all.

That’s why I either chuckle or grit my teeth when I see far too many people who can’t seem to cope without their “audience” in tow, in the form of a cell phone welded to their ear.

Unfortunately, the same people often show zero public discretion when they venture out with their media attached. I can’t remember how many public meetings I’ve attended that have been disrupted by some cockamamie ring tone. And when the offending phone’s on vibrate, it sounds like an electric shaver. Just turn the %*#$& thing off already!

No wonder the nation is going through such malaise when so many people work themselves into a self-defined, hand-wringing meltdown because they aren’t connected to their cell phones.
I might be “old school,” but I’d rather enjoy the silence.
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