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DMCP critiques technology obsession

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The Northfield News previewed the St. Olaf Theater Department’s production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone in early March, describing the play’s take on “modern technology’s ability to both unite and isolate people in the modern age.” The play opens in a cafe with an awkward, cellphone-less woman named Jean on a break from her job at the Holocaust Museum. She expresses irritation and eventual annoyance when the man next to her fails to answer his cell phone multiple times. Jean soon realizes the man is dead and becomes fixated on the people who continue to call his phone after he has died.

The play explores our reliance on and obsession with technology, especially cell phones. Since the invention of the smartphone, companies have increased the number of applications available on cell phones. Where phones were once used for calling, they soon became vehicles for texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, video chatting, checking news sources, Instagram, TimeHop and if all that isn’t enough for you, there are always games! When you step back and think about it, the depth and breadth of applications available on smartphones is impressive, and even more impressive is the number of people using these apps.

I could delve into a tirade about the evils of technology, how it separates us from each other, from our world, from our experiences with the world, but anything I have to say pales in comparison to the play’s expression of this phenomenon. Dead Man’s Cell Phone nearly whalloped the audience over the head with the idea of too much connection. In the play, Jean’s obsession with the cell phone is such that she feels compelled to answer in all situations, including while kissing Dwight, the man she falls in love with and who is also the brother of the dead man.

Shannon Cron ’15, the show’s director, hoped that Dead Man’s Cell Phone would “give [students] a new perspective on their use of technology and connections with other people.”

As much as I wish this were possible, I’m afraid this message is consistently lost on the intended audience. Even in the face of a play that combines the absurdism of, say, being trapped in “hell” where the only outer-world communication you can hear is through cell phones with the realism of obsession in such a poignant manner, I fear that endless diatribes against technology continue to fall flat.

It’s enough to make me wonder about the role of the arts behind an idea such as this. What is the best a writer, director or actor can hope for in imparting this message? Perhaps that the audience members will think twice about reaching for their phones every time they ring or work to be more present in their own lives. But how long will that last? A week? An evening, if that?

This show comes on the cusp of countless media outlets imploring us to unplug from technology I often wonder at the irony of this message, communicated through the “cursed” media outlets themselves. However, theater remains one of the last great strongholds in which we as a society unplug. At one point in the show, the dead man’s mother makes a comment about how there are few places in society where cell phones don’t ring anymore: the church and the theater.

Placing this timely message in the context of a play strenghtens its message. The audience grows attached to the characters, can feel their anxiety and sorrow enough to – dare I say it? – consider altering their perspective on technology.

Will it change all behavior? Probably not. Yet the execution of this message underscores its importance at this time and place, particularly on a college campus. As many of us begin to transition into a working life, this show serves as a reminder of the value of true connection with others. Perhaps Dead Man’s Cell Phone, in combination with other critiques of our obsession with technology, may serve as collective weight that breaks the habit.

Emily Stets ’15 stetsec@stolaf.edu is from Northfield, Minn. Her CIS major is Public Mental Health: Wellness and the Arts.

Graphic Credit: LOUISA CARROLL/MANITOU MESSENGER