The Soulless Machine

“The three-year-old just walked right past me,” the Santa Rosa, CA, pediatrician reported, “talking into a cell phone.” That stark image of toddler attached to machine has troubled me. “I was amused at first,” the physician continued. “Then I felt sad. She was learning how to relate to people through a machine. It was so mechanical.  Cell phones can connect people, but they also speed things up.” Must we rush even toddlers into machines?

“Half of British children aged 5 to 9 own a mobile phone. Some Experts are Unhappy,” headlines a June 23, 2009 article in the UK’s daily “The Times.” It reports that “Lawrie Challies, an emeritus professor of physics who has led the Government’s mobile-phone safety research, says that parents should not give children phones before secondary school.” (Mobile phones for children: a boon or a peril? Times Online – UK) University of Melbourne pediatrics professor Michael Carr-Gregg, a leading Australian psychologist, “is worried about the power of mobile phones to distract and overexcite” and “says that no children should be allowed a mobile phone until the age of 12.” The French Government bans sales of mobile phones to children under 6.

The long-term consequences of young children already taking their gaze away from living people and constantly-changing nature to look down into and be captured by static machines concerns me. Who benefits and what is lost? What is appropriate technology use? What induces obsessive/compulsive/addictive behavior?

The addiction to technological progress has heightened in recent years, especially with respect to telecommunications and cybernetics. This growth further exhausts fossil fuels. The development, manufacture and maintenance of high technology tools and weapons depend upon ample cheap energy from fossil fuels. As oil supplies decline and the pace of life quickens even more rapidly, the demand for more coal extraction will increase, which will heighten pollution and speed-up global climate chaos.

“Every single machine in the nation runs on lubrication,” notes David Frindley, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This includes electrical and wireless tools that require crude oil byproducts. He was quoted in a recent article about Transition Towns in the weekly “North Bay Bohemian,” where he purchased a small farm in Sonoma County. Frindley is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, based in small town Sebastopol, Northern California.

Though I sometimes use a cell phones, with moderation, I am concerned about the unconscious and excessive use of them, like while driving or talking so loud in a restaurant that one disturbs the peaceful meals of others. The issue is how we use technology, rather than abuse it. Some people seem always on call, slaves to their cell phones, willing to drop a live person in favor of talking into that tiny machine. The disadvantages of cell phones, including texting, warrant attention, including unintended consequences and collateral damage.

At issue is when and where and what the consequences might be at certain ages and in certain situations. What might be appropriate cell phone and texting etiquette for young people at different ages? My goal is to encourage people to engage in critical thinking about consequences before placing pulsating plastic to hand then ear, rather than using more primitive and holistic communication methods, like face-to-face.

Cell phones can be good for emergencies, convenient, functional, practical, and have some advantages, as demonstrated by the global communication from the recent twittering from Iran.  They can enable even a young person to speak to a distant relative or a parent who is out of town. However, walking around in the streets texting while looking down is sometimes dangerous and at least rude.

As with Petaluma, CA, artist Sally Krah, I am concerned about “the health risks of cell phones.” She uses hers “carefully and infrequently,” so that “it doesn’t rule my life. It’s a blessing if used in moderation.”

The immediacy of cell phones and their push-button control can increase impatience with slower things, like the development of deep human relationships, lasting love, growing plants, and caring for animals. Cybertime creates unnatural time pressures, heightening stress and anxiety. The tools and technologies that we use are not neutral; they help shape who we become.


Alas, I have also been caught in the cell phone snare. While speaking to my Sonoma State University students one day, mine went off, much to their delight, giggles, and snickers, as well as my embarrassment.

We may have a social epidemic on our hands. Studies reveal that American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages a month in the fourth quarter of 2008. One person reported that his 13-year-old exchanged 14,528 texts in one month.

The number of text messages rose to about 75 billion earlier this year and is going up. Downsides include declines in spelling, word choice and writing complexit and an inability to focus. Text-bullying and sending naked photos have become problematic, resulting in at least one documented suicide.

I invited a SSU freshman class off-campus for a film and dinner. The first thing that some of these teens did at the restaurant was to put their cell phones on the dinner table. Some of their little gadgets promptly vibrated, buzzed, and made a variety of demanding sounds.

My dinner guests were soon miles away texting, having what sounded like one-way conversations intruding into our dinner, and playing phone games, ignoring the rest of us at the table in front of them. What happened to old-fashioned connective meal-time conversations? When the primary relationship becomes with a talking machine, rather than with a multi-dimensional person with whom to have spontaneous, life-deepening and life-changing dialogue, something is lost.

As they multi-tasked on so-called “smartphones,” I felt annoyed and alone—a slow dinosaur at a table with fast-moving butterflies with short attention spans flickering away into cyberspace, their consciousnesses split. They are masters at quick scans of screens, rather than reading entire books.  I must admit that I am old-fashioned and prefer home-made music and food to the factory-made stuff. I prefer live story-telling and the oral tradition of recited poetry to television. I resist being drawn into the need-it-yesterday world.

But I didn’t say anything to my students, though I did later circulate an article on the downsides of texting to initiate discussion. The students were defensive, but it was a good experience in critical thinking, which is what I teach and seek to practice here.

One of the students in that class, Sally-Anne Petit, helped me understand the use of cell phones from the perspective of her generation as follows: “Changes in our world have made us feel uncomfortable. Or even in danger of being without a mobile technological device. We use these devices to hide us from scary things in this world. It provides shelter, or even a friend. This is important because part of growing up is defending yourself and learning how to act in awkward, or uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous situations.”

“Its not about the technology so much as it is how the technology is used,” added one of my Teaching Assistants, social worker Victoria Fleming, M.S.W.  “It calls for a new etiquette. It is harder for us as we get older to find relevance in young technology and this creates a rift between generations.  This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is accelerated by the pace of emerging technology.”

I later walked on SSU’s beautiful redwood-lined campus. Many students had their faces buried in that consumptive machine, missing the redwoods and other humans passing by, as well as the birds above calling to them. I’ve even seen two people walking along talking to each other—on their cells phones. Those with bluetooths in their ears reminded me of the part-machine, part-human race called Borgs in “Star Trek.”

Some SSU students understand the downsides of texting and related phenomenon. “Digital Communication: The Death of Verbal Communication in our Society” was recently published by the campus newspaper. Brian Evans contends that “we as a society have been spoiled by the luxuries of Internet, cellular communication, iPhones, Blackberries, etc.” He laments that they have “diminished the personalization of communicating” and “texting has limited our laughter to Lol.”

The sound-bite, minimalist approach that texting and twittering employ can contract the soul and imagination, rather than expand them; they narrow the range of emotions that can be expressed. The frequency with which some fiddle with their phones, eyes down, makes it more difficult to make eye contact with them.


“Techo-addiction” is how some psychologists describe this phenomenon, which includes other recent developments, such as Facebook, My Space, You Tube, and Twitter. An indication that addiction is an appropriate description is when you see someone walk across a busy street, not in the crosswalk, texting, instead of looking, thus risking their life. Texting and twittering also seem to shorten the attention span and heighten one’s vulnerability to distraction, rather than focus and concentration.

New technologies can promise a lot, and then entangle users in a growing web of products, often quite expensive.  Cell phones expand the consumer culture of instant messaging and instant gratification, thus reducing the time for embodied human relations and dialogue that leads beyond data and information to depth and textured wisdom.

It is illegal to hold cell phones to one’s ear while driving in California, though I notice many violators, who thus threaten the rest of us with more accidents. Plane, train, and ship accidents have been documented to have happened while or just after pilots’ attentions were diverted while texting.

In contrast to the three-year-old with cell phone, I recently visited friends with a five-month-old bundled onto her mother’s chest, eyes locked, occasionally smiling at the rest of us, returning to absorb her mother’s warm intimacy. It comforted me. I have also been delighted to hang out with a neighbor’s seventeen-month-old, so full of vitality, splashing in water, beginning to form words. He inspires me. I worry about what is in store for these children in this high-tech, sped-up digital world.

I watch with delight as youngsters interact with chickens on my small farm, look up with awe into the giant redwoods, feel their powerful dance partner the wind, and see the birds above. My seventeen-month-old friend eagerly stuffs his mouth with berries, whose purple color ring his wide smile.

At a library I recently also saw a small girl, probably under three, fixated on a computer screen. She skillfully moved the “mouse” around and watched the machine respond promptly. Screens radiate light, which looking at directly can be harmful, especially to young eyes and brains. Sonoma State University psychology graduate student Julie Perkins is writing her thesis partly on “the gaze” and reports that she “is concerned with the use of machines and the deleterious effect of gazing on a screen in the digital world.” This trend of children absorbed by machines rather than living beings or even picture books concerns me.

On the other hand, I’ve heard of toddlers who throw cell phones into toilets. Good for them! This could be a direct way of communicating “Pay attention to me!” Such spontaneous play is a healthy alternative to the beginning of consumerism. Technophiles seek to protect their expensive hand-held devices, whereas I am more concerned to protect children from pre-mature technology and the addiction to a cell phone culture that is not age appropriate. One toddler’s mother explained that cell phones can have a candy-like appeal, which can lead to a child wanting to consume too much, unless appropriate limits are discerned and established.


The Flickering Mind” titles a book by award-winning journalist Todd Oppenheimer, sub-titled “The False Promises of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.” Though published what some now consider long ago, 2003, its nearly 500 pages document the downsides of computers in education long before texting became so popular and disruptive. His chapters include “Hidden Troubles,” “Bulldozing the Imagination,” and “The Human Touch.”

“Time poverty is now a recognized psychological and social stressor,” according to psychotherapist Linda Buzzell, co-editor of the new Sierra Club Book’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.” She adds, “We struggle with diminishing success to adapt to the strange mechanical and disembodied world we have created,” including “endless 24/7 online communications… constantly rushing to keep up as we inevitably fall further behind.” In that machine-driven process “we find ourselves destroying not only our own health, but our habitat and the habitat of the people, plants and animals with whom we share the planet.”

My college students tend to be sweet and open-hearted. They also have more trouble reading entire books and sustaining attention than they did even a few years ago; they appear more distant and distracted. Their emails have gotten briefer and are not always in standard English; they employ abbreviations that I do not understand. They seem to have less patience for ambiguity and paradox, preferring a machine-like yes and no and making overstatements like “always” and “never.”

I do not allow cell phones to be on during class. The tapping while texting can be as annoying as cross-talking and insulting to whoever is speaking. However, I still sometimes hear them vibrate and know that some students are so addicted that they are adept at concealing these tools—which can become almost like armor or weapons–under their clothes and desks the way earlier generations of youth would carefully conceal cigarette smoking.

It took a long time to make cigarette smoking illegal in certain public places, though the dangers had been clearly documented for decades. I hope that it does not take as long to make cell phones illegal in some places, especially moving vehicles, as well as elsewhere. Cell phones can be powerful forces in expanding the consumer culture and reducing embodied human relations and deep communication with others that involves texture, emotion, and nuances.

The critique of soulless machines implicit in this article echoes a tradition reaching back more than a century that includes British novelist D.H. Lawrence, German-speaking poet Rilke, German-American psychologist Erich Fromm, American gardeners Scott and Helen Nearing, and French sociologist Jacques Ellul. Contemporary American advocates of this tradition include psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning (“When Technology Wounds”), public relations expert Jerry Mander (“In the Absence of the Sacred”), and farmer Wendell Berry (“In the Presence of Fear.”)

The three-year-old witnessed by the pediatrician was being conditioned for an adult life of consumption with an early onset cell phone addiction. Instead of speeding up to follow the commands of goal-oriented machines such as cell phones, we humans could benefit from slowing down to nature’s meandering pace, especially here in the gorgeous Redwood Empire.

Dr. SHEPHERD BLISS teaches part-time at Sonoma State University and runs the organic Kokopelli Farm in Northern California. He has contributed to two dozen books, most recently to the Sierra Club Book’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.” He can be reached at



Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: