Why I don’t have a cell phone

I was upset. She was upset. We missed each other. It had been almost 50 years to the month since we had seen each other. We had been in a wedding party together in July, 1964.

But I didn’t have a cell phone, and the only pay phone in town had a one way connection. “Hello … Hello … Helllo!!” She couldn’t hear me respond. No one, apparently has responsibility for pay phone maintenance any more.

This was the kind of situation for which cell phones were invented. I was traveling and she had complications in her life that made it difficult to make prior arrangements. So why didn’t have I a cell phone – even one of the one-time $40 phones?

The big picture is that I don’t think our civilization is headed in the right direction. And let me say at the outset that I am caught up in the civilization as much as anyone, so I know that actions, like not having a cell phone, are pretty insignificant. And there was a negative consequence to my decision that impacted others as well as me. But let me continue.

It seems very obvious to me that our human world is headed over a cliff, or some similar metahorical danger.  World population growth, global warming, limited fossil-fuel supplies with increasingly disastrous pollution consequences of obtaining the remaining upplies, just to name some of the issues, are very real problems that are hard to ignore, but harder to face.  It is a big story: a huge story, and unsolvable story, in all likelihood  involving great suffering.  So any step-on-the-brakes action is at least an attempt to look at the situation.  But why this particular stance.?

Cell phones are not neutral. They require certain valuable minerals that represent human lives. Coltan is needed for EVERY cell phone. 80% of the world’s coltan is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Around 2000, because of the meteoric rise in the demand for mobile phones and the mass production of Sony Playstation II, the price of Coltan went from $30 per pound to $380 per pound. Students ,farmers and shepherds left their duties and started artisanal mining. It didn’t take long for local militia to take over the mines and local communities, ruling them with violence. The toll on human life has been enormous: 5.4 million lives: the highest death toll of any conflict in the world since World War II. Half of those killed have been children.

When I first learned of this, I didn’t have a cell phone and vowed never to purchase one. It was an arbitrary decision. I had a computer and later l learned that coltan was in the laptop that a friend had given me. But I had drawn the line, and it is important to me that I try to keep my commitments.

But there is another reason I am more determined than ever not to own a cellphone.

Cellphones have changed the way people behave, and not for the better.

I recently wanted to set up a lunch date with a friend. It took four conversations. There was nothing that happened during the period of these conversations that had any impact on the decision of when and where to meet. It was simply the habit that, with cell phones, one doesn’t need to plan in advance – one doesn’t need to make commitments. Something may come up and adjustments can be made on the fly. “Call me when you get close.” “Call me the day before.”

By way of contrast, two years ago I travelled the perimeter of the US, 9,000: miles. For one stop visiting an old friend, I wrote, I’ll be there around 10:00 AM on Jul y 29th. I wrote that 3 months in advance. She wrote back, “Great.” That was the end of the conversation.  I showed up at 10:00 AM on the 29th and she was expecting me.  Somehow that doesn’t happen any more. Now I set up a meeting two weeks in advance and if I don’t call, it is assumed that the meeting is off. People have changed the way they interact.

And the change is not only the way they make commitments, but they have lost their ability to plan – to make judgments.

I look at maps. I like to understand the lay of the land. Do you know where the water falling on your roof enters the ocean? Do you even know which way the water at the curb of your sidewalk flows? Do you know which way north is? Did you used to know? Can you tell someone “I’ll meet you in the north-east corner of the parking lot? – or – “It’s on the first street inside the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers. It is this kind of basic awareness of life and life sytems that allows us to plan and make commitments.

And then there’s the money. How much money is automatically withdrawn from your bank account for your telephone, cell phone, TV, cable, internet, for this “connected” electronic world? And how often have you upgraded? Try to add up the cost of the purchases of your electronic items; all your upgrades over the last 10 years. Divide that number by 120 and add that number to your monthly costs of being connected. That’s what it costs you every month to be in this world of electronic connections. If you feel the cost is worth the service you receive, fine.

But if you feel trapped in this life – if your monthly costs are keeping you enslaved to a job you don’t love.   And if part of this trap is that you would feel lost without your cell phone, you should look back at how you used to live, and know you could recover some skills and habits that would help you escape from your trap.

The question isn’t what you would do if you lost your cellphone. The question is what you have lost by becoming dependent on a cellphone.

I think we, as a society have lost much, and what we have lost are precisely the skills and habits we may need in the future to survive and help the less fortunate when we face the consequences of our profligate ways.

For myself, I will do without a cell phone.


About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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8 Responses to Why I don’t have a cell phone

  1. Juliet says:

    I think you are right to have lines in the sand. As you say, they are to some extent arbitrary but still they serve a purpose. They witness. They inspire. They keep us focussed on what is important. We may disagree on where the line should be but it is important that we keep talking and writing about these things. And living the life, as you do.


  2. And I thought I was the last holdout! Not having a “smart device” frees the imagination and improves the intuition, as well… Come see us on the farm, any time, no cell phone contact needed…


  3. I love what you wrote, and agree with you. Alas, I got a cell phone long before I knew about coltan. I upgraded only once to a slightly “better” phone, and that was a gift to me from a loved one. My cell phone is not a “smart phone.” Every single person I know (with the exception of perhaps three people) has a “smart phone,” and checks it obsessively. By that time, I’d heard of coltan, and, much as I coveted a “smart phone” for its various features, I said to myself, “I will NEVER get one, not at the cost of the lives of women and children.
    Likewise, I haven’t bought myself a new laptop. I use my husband’s old one.
    I hate what the world has become.
    I love your way.


    • Thank you so much for your support. I was thinking of an addition to the post, and with your permission I will add it here. I realized that talking about the flow of water may not make sense to some, maybe many people. But it is this kind of knowledge which allows me to live the way I do. I am VERY weak. Climbing 4 stairs uses up my energy reserves. If I continue exerting myself in the same way for another 10 secondes, I reach a point where I cannot recuperate without lying on the ground for 15 minutes. Yet I bike the 6 miles to the hospital for my chemo therapy. This is because I follow the path of the water from my home in Cambridge to the Charles River, and follow the path of the water in the Fens which goes from the River past the hospital. No uphill. No car ride. No making my wife lose half a day. No cab. Does it make sense to anyone else that the dependence on cell phones has weakened the collective knowledge of how to get along in this world?


  4. That is so moving! And I’m so sorry you have to deal with the weakness caused by chemotherapy and cancer! And yet, you sound strong, sensible and a totally healthy human being. Your way of thinking should be followed by more people.
    Question: How do you get back home? Wouldn’t it be uphill to a certain extent? Or have you marked out another route?
    (P.S. I know this general area, living in the greater Boston area myself.)


    • Thank you for your response. Following the water flow, whether up or down, is always the gentlist grade. The hospital is across the river, so following the Fens to the hispital is slightly uphill, but very slightly. Similarly, coming home by bike, once I cross the river, going up Mass Ave., it is slightly uphill, but only gradually – there are no ups and downs on the route.


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