Katie Liesener is an award-winning slam storyteller and writer who has spent years in journalism and academia. She has reported for the Boston Globe and taught non-fiction writing at Emmanuel College before moving to Chicago, where she spent two years researching her own family history for an upcoming memoir. She lives in Boston.
Cell phones first proliferated in my college years. It was a brand new post-9/11 world and our anxious parents were eager to plant them on us “in case of emergency.”
To us, cell phones were a hilarious novelty item. What were we, businessmen? I hardly used mine—a bare-bones phone with prepaid minutes. But in the years after college, my friends started signing up for neatly packaged plans advertised by the major carriers. I embraced the future and pledged my allegiance to Verizon.
At first, it seemed like a great deal. Every two years I became eligible for a new, free phone. “Free” was the operative word for me. As a young adult, I resolved to live cheaply; I didn’t want to end up like the zombies who worked themselves silly to accumulate material goods. So free phones were a great perk. But then, every two years, the service package prices rose, adding expensive features I didn’t want or need.
I tried to resist. When texting debuted, I chose to save money instead. Who needs mini-emails? When I told my roommate about my cell plan, he texted me: “This message just cost you 10 cents.”
As texting caught fire, I realized Verizon had given me a Trojan horse. My “free” text-enabled phone compelled me to purchase a texting plan to deflect extra charges. Each year since, I’ve been presented with costlier, feature-laden plans under the banner of “choice.” Meanwhile, simplicity is quietly taken off the menu.
This has become my main frustration with modern technologies. For most of human history, technologies addressed problems such as disease and back-breaking labor that radically diminished the dignity and potential of human life. Today’s technologies rarely fix problems; they add capabilities. When tech companies convince vast swaths of the population that they “need” these new capabilities, then integral parts of our social and personal lives are surrendered to consolidated power structures—conglomerates that seek their own enrichment, not our well-being. (Verizon sells the government access to private phone lines via another neatly packaged plan: $750 for the first month of tapping, $500 for subsequent months!)
In short, the modern human is expected to accommodate these ever costlier technologies because they are “next,” whether or not they make us happier, whether or not they create larger problems than they purport to fix, whether or not anyone ever asked for them at all.
You could call this “advancement.” But whose aims are we advancing toward?
As a young adult, I wanted to live simply so I could focus on what I most valued—bonding with friends and hunting down new experiences. I explored my city by bike into the wee hours. I was forever losing and breaking my cell phones. I was deliriously happy.
Today, young women are mocked for their inevitably cracked iPhone screens. But I see these young people as accidental Luddites. They may not smash their phones in protest, but they illustrate a modern truth: we are losing our grip on these technologies.