Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, is one of the most techno-savvy scifi authors of his generation, and yet his new novel Anathem is strongly critical of mobile phones. Anathem, which hits bookstores Tuesday, is set on an alien world that's very much like Earth — right down to its technologies, which include mobile-esque devices called jeejahs. The main characters in the novel are part of a scientifically-advanced group called the "avout" who have rejected jeejahs, as well as most kinds of consumer electronics. And they've done it for some of the same reasons that Stephenson thinks people on Earth should reject them too. In Anathem, the avout deliberately separate themselves from people who work on technology and other applied sciences. At first, it seems that this is just an issue of purity, or of maintaining an ascetic, monkish life in the large, isolated "concents" where they study. But gradually, as we come to see more of the "saecular" world outside the concent, we realize it's because the avout value more than anything the ability to focus deeply on problems. That means they must spend hours, days, or even years lavishing their uninterrupted attention on a topic. When saeculars enter the concent, their jeejahs are constantly ringing and distracting everyone. It's almost unbearable for some of the avout, and certainly irritating to all of them, precisely because they see how the jeejahs shatter concentration and prevent people from having the kinds of long conversations necessary to make intellectual breakthroughs. Or even just to have a pleasant conversation. There is a basic concern that good thinking cannot be done when jeejahs distract people all the time. I spoke to Stephenson about this issue in the novel, and he replied via email:
There is a larger question here . . . having to do with attention span and ability to focus on complex problems—or even non-complex ones, such as driving or having a civilized conversation with someone next to you. This is what the avout find so alarming about the cellphone-like devices used by people in the world of the book.
I asked Stephenson whether he felt that cell phones in our own world might represent a wrong turn, technologically speaking. He said:
I couldn't live without mine. But the etiquette and the interface are lagging behind the technology. Introduction of new technology often leads to disruptions in manners that can take a generation or more to play out. We're in one of those awkward times now.
He raises an interesting point. It's possible that we're living through the awkward adolescence of a gadget that in its present incarnation basically sucks no matter how you make it. Maybe there's just no way, with our current technology, to manufacture a good mobile. Maybe it will, as Stephenson suggests, take a generation or more before we aren't constantly pissed off by our own tech. What's intriguing is that Stephenson is saying mobiles suck not just because of their interfaces, but because of how people act when they use mobiles. Of course, how people act with cell phones has everything to do with the interface. You have to stick them against your face, or put some weirdass Cyberman-looking thing in your ear. So your body language, when you're on a mobile, makes you immediately seem rude to anyone around you. Plus, most people still use audible ringers (as opposed to vibration), so it is essentially impossible to have a mobile without inviting a noisy, irritating interruption. What that means is your mobile doesn't just interrupt your train of thought or conversation — it interrupts everyone's within earshot. So the mobile as we know it is perhaps one of the worst attention-shattering devices imaginable. The question is, how would you make a mobile that retains all the goodness of convenience but eliminates the rudeness and interruptions? Or is the mobile just a fundamentally broken technology that will eventually die out?