Off the Grid

Choosing to live cell-phone-free.

It was the summer of 1984 and I was 19 years of age. It was a heady time. During my breaks working for the custodian at Redeemer College, I would listen to two of my professors debating a reformational worldview: “Could all cultural artifacts be redeemed? Or were there some things, like nuclear warheads, that were just unremittingly irredeemable?” It was an intense debate that waged in the staff room all summer long. At the time, I sided with the professor who argued that all things could be redeemed. Of course, nothing is beyond God’s healing hand. Is it?

At the same time, I was being introduced to the breadth of reformational vision through the writings of those at the Institute for Christian Studies, particularly Herman Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis of life. I’m not going to go into the details here. Suffice it to say, that at the age of 19, invigorated by a new lens for thinking about how to live faithfully in the world, I began to apply a modified version of this analysis to different parts of my life. The first dramatic result of this was a decision to never eat at McDonald’s again: everything that McDonald’s said about our life as creaturely beings from a social perspective (the importance of meals), aesthetically (all that plastic), from a health perspective, from an environmental perspective, to the temporal rhythms of our lives – all of it undermined creaturely faithfulness. McDonald’s could not be redeemed.

Which brings me to cell phones. When I engage in a similar assessment of cell phones, it is hard to imagine any reason why I would want to introduce one of these things into my life. Think about how cell phones are made. Reflect on the toxic chemicals that are in the plastics and how they pollute our groundwater and give cancer to our neighbours. Ponder how the metals in these phones are mined using slave labour (some of it child slave labour) by companies that displace indigenous communities and engage in murder and theft. It is clear that the making of cell phones harms community and creation.

But there is more. Reflect on how cell phones function in our lives. We interrupt conversations for them. We depend on them for a frightening amount of (mis)information. We use them for company (good morning, Siri) and interrupt sermons and talks with them. We refuse to commit to meetings and plans because of them. We tweet out angry messages, and re-tweet the anger of others; we take inappropriate pictures and send inappropriate texts. We indulge ourselves in viewing the same. And they take energy; they use fossil fuels to do all of this. It is clear that the use of cell phones harms community and creation.

But there is still more. Consider what happens when we are finished with our cell phones. Ponder how the toxic chemicals leach into the groundwater and how they contaminate those who dismantle the phones. They become toxic waste. When we are done with cell phones, they harm community and creation.

So why are we carrying these things around? When I mention to people that I don’t have a cell phone the overwhelming response I get is envy. People tell me that they wish they weren’t so dependent on their cell phones, but they can’t imagine living without them. 

It is this lack of imagination that should really give us pause. Not being able to live without something that was non-existent a scant 50 years ago sounds like an addiction. And, of course, there are a plethora of studies that show we are literally addicted to our cell phones.

Oddly enough, while enabling us to be connected no matter where we are, cell phones are gradually making us homeless. They disconnect us from community, since we don’t need to interact with the people around us if we have a phone to interact with (this week a study came out showing that the use of cell phones is causing children to have less positive interactions with adults). They disconnect us from our creational surroundings, since now when we walk city streets we are often looking at our phones, or talking on our phones rather than looking at trees and gardens. They create anxiety and depression in our children and teenagers, as study after study has shown. They enable bullying to permeate every aspect of our lives. 

What do we normally call relationships that cut us off from the earth, legitimate and facilitate bullying and violence, and increasingly control the information we receive and the people we interact with? We call them abusive relationships. And this is exactly how cell phones function in our lives. And like someone in an abusive relationship, we feel that we cannot escape. 
It would not be a stretch to say that our sense that we have no choice when it comes to cell phone use is the language of slavery to sin, to use Paul’s words in Romans 7. To feel that we have no choice is to have an imagination captive to the cultural forces shaped by a story of progress and technological domination, rather than the story of the gospel shaped by a call to a community of care for each other and the earth. 

Why would we want these things in our lives? Why would we give them to our children?

When I think back to that old debate between two of my professors at Redeemer, I think that I would have a different response now. There are some things that are so unremittingly negative for the earth and for the flourishing of community on the earth that there is no way they can be redeemed. Cell phones are one of those things.  

  • Dr. Keesmaat is a biblical scholar who lives in an off-grid solar-powered house in Cameron, Ont. A few paragraphs of this piece are from her most recent book Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, co-authored with her husband Brian Walsh.

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