IT’S NO PICNIC BEING A REFUSENIK

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BY HILARY HAGERMAN

Stefania Scarfo spends 3,000 minutes talking on her iPhone every month. That’s about an hour and a half every day, most of it in the evening when her usage is unlimited. On top of that, she sends 2,000 texts and obsessively browses the Internet, sends emails and uses Twitter. All of this runs her bill from $90 to $130 every month.

The third-year radio and television arts student got her first cell phone in Grade 10 for her birthday, but can’t remember a time before that when she wasn’t exposed to one. Now her cell phone is a necessity every day. “It’s essential. I need it,” she said. “I can’t imagine going a day without it.

“I don’t even have a watch – how would I check the time?”

Over half of all Canadians now own a cell phone, and are replacing their landlines with mobile devices. More adults than ever before use cell phones as their only phone, and this is especially true of students. The cell phone, once a luxury, has now become a necessity. We use cell phones to arrange meetings, to keep in touch with friends and to keep us occupied. They help us kill time, break up with partners, find new ones. Cell phones keep us connected in a world where our friends and family no longer need to live close by to keep in touch.

But some have decided not to buy into it, and have found a way to stay off the grid. Zhantal Lopez, a third-year politics student at Ryerson is one of these “refuseniks.” She sees the widespread adoption of mobile technology and wonders if we aren’t all losing something in the bargain. For Lopez, cell phones have connected us with more people while putting up a barrier between us and those closest to us.

“I like being off the grid,” she said.

“I’m still talking to people in person.”

Because geographic proximity to our social circle is no longer important, we have separated ourselves physically from our community; and because we can touch base at any time, we have devalued our individual interactions with others. But we’ve been too busy buying the latest gadget to notice this loss in our personal connections.

 

Mark Junop lasted three-and-a-half years at Ryerson before he bought his first cell phone. The film graduate managed by shaping his life to make it as easy as possible. He lived on campus, spending his first two years in Pitman Hall and his last two at the International Living and Learning Centre (ILC). He had a close circle of friends who he went to classes with almost every day. And since they saw each other so often, they made plans in person, or over MSN Messenger when they didn’t see each other. And Junop made sure that whenever he went out, he had at least one person with a cell phone to keep them in check. He did all of this to save money.

“I tried to push it as much as I could,” he said. A cell phone would have been “just another cost.”

All of this changed in fourth year. Junop was working on a short film for his program and realized he could no longer manage without a cell phone. It was easy for him to work without one, but harder for the rest of his crew — if someone had a question for him it traveled through a grapevine of people before actually reaching him.

“Just because of the size of it, I had to have a cell phone so they could reach me at any time in any way,” he said.

Now Junop uses his phone every day. He has moved off campus, and so have his friends. While they still keep in touch, they meet only every couple weeks.

“The cell phone gives us the illusion that we’re not so far apart,” he said. “If we didn’t have cell phones we’d have tighter, smaller groups.” Junop said that he’d likely be living with one or more of his friends right now if mobile technology wasn’t as pervasive.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “It makes you stay in touch with the people you don’t normally talk to, but it creates a distance between those you are closer to.”

 

Hossein Rahnama, director of the Ubiquitous Computing Lab at Ryerson, recognizes that there are barriers still between people and mobile technology, and he is working to overcome them.

One problem he sees is that many people just aren’t comfortable with being connected to the world every single minute. So Rahnama’s lab is working to give the user more control over their cell phones, offering features like knowing when the person is in a situation where they can’t take a phone call. For example, the person can plug an event into their phone, and incoming calls during that time will automatically be redirected to voice mail with a text message that notifies the user who called.

Another issue is that cell phones are expensive — but even this might change. Rahnama said that businesses have realized the necessity of mobile devices and give their employees company phones, and that universities may eventually offer the same for students.

“Mobile phones are just another way to get access to the cloud,” he said, referring to the cloud of information available to students, whether it be from professors, social groups or anything else important. It’s like a broader form of the Internet. “If you cannot connect with this cloud it will be difficult.

“I think you can definitely survive without having a cell phone,” he added. “But I think it’s becoming more and more difficult to live without a connected device.”

And if there’s a problem with cell phones and their influence on our social lives, it’s not the cell phone’s fault, it’s how we use them.

“The usability and the culture is the issue,” Rahnama explained. “We will adapt the technology to our needs… We’re going to use it the way we need to use it.”

 

This may be a long time coming. Lopez sees cell phones getting in the way of our interactions with other people, and we’re not doing anything about it. Sure, she said, you can turn it off — but it never actually happens. “All my friends have cell phones. We’ll be having a coffee and they’ll say, ‘Oh, hold on a sec,’ because they got a text message,” she said. “It’s so frustrating.”

This isn’t the only issue the refusenik has with them. Lopez said that when you’re on your cell phone, you don’t notice your surroundings. “It’s strange when you’re walking around and you’re missing everything,” she said.

Lopez recalled how Jane Jacobs, an urbanist, writer and activist, once fought to keep the Spadina Expressway from dividing Spadina Avenue because it would split the community up. People would no longer walk the streets and spontaneously converse.

She said that’s out of date, and now when you walk down the street, most people are on cell phones instead of talking to each other. Small interactions create community, she said, and now we’ve lost those small interactions.

But she admitted that she has missed out on things from not having a cell phone. She missed a free Wintersleep show because her friend had emailed her about it, and she doesn’t often check emails. And last summer she traveled to New York and found the maze-like transit system troublesome. “I was so envious of people with iPhones that day,” she said, because they had apps that showed them where they were and how they needed to get there. She was forced to ask security guards, who sent her back and forth between stations, until she finally gave up and took a longer route. She was seeing Grizzly Bear that day and missed the opening act.

While she’s now eyeing the iPhone, Lopez is hoping she’ll last without one until she graduates. Until then she will continue to make plans in person and carry quarters for payphones. For Lopez the slight disconnect can actually increase the quality of in-person interactions. If you’re not constantly communicating with someone, she said, maybe you’ll value them more when they are around.

“It gives you a chance to miss your friends,” she said.

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