An Unhealthy Relationship?

When it comes to gizmos, I’m what you’d call a late adopter. I didn’t buy a cell phone until 2004. I just got a smart phone this year, when my old flip phone finally crapped out and the progressive phone company CREDO Mobile gave me an Android for free. Even though I’m something of a tech curmudgeon, I’ll admit that I love it. I love being able to check my email whenever. I love being able to follow Twitter from just about anywhere. I love the universal access to the worlds of information squirreled away on the Internet.

Sure, love is a strong word to use when talking about a gadget. “Addicted” is how most people describe their relationships to their smart phones. But consider this: When Martin Lindstrom, a longtime brand consultant, carried out fMRI experiments to see how people reacted to their phones, he discovered that subjects’ brains responded to the sounds of their phone much as they respond to the presence of a boyfriend, girlfriend, or family member. When the phone rings, subjects experienced a flutter of activity in their insular cortex – the same part of the brain associated with compassion and affection. We are, all of us, in love with our tech wonders.

It has become conventional wisdom that the intense intimacy we have with our infotainment accessories can have an unhealthy impact on human relationships. (See: texting while talking.) But what if it’s worse than that? What if our love affair with our iPhones and Androids and wi-fi networks is making us physically sick?

I know I’m not alone in feeling queasy about the idea of putting a miniature microwave up to my skull just to catch up with old friends. You don’t have to be a member of the tinfoil hat club to worry about the health effects of being bombarded with radiation 24-7. So I felt a thrill of affirmation when, reading Christopher Ketcham’s cover story (“Warning: High Frequency”), I came across this observation from Louis Slesin, publisher of a newsletter called Microwave News:

“We’re electromagnetic beings. You wouldn’t have a thought in your head without electromagnetic signals. There is electrical signaling going on in your body all the time, and the idea that external electromagnetic fields can’t affect us just doesn’t make sense.”

Sounds right to me. Here’s the rub: We don’t know for certain how, exactly, the white noise of electromagnetic fields is affecting us. As Ketcham reports, so far the research is mixed. Some studies show a linkage between cancerous tumors and cell phone use. Others dismiss any connection. One group of scientists thinks that a few people (anywhere from 3 to 6 percent of the population) have become ill due to “electrosensitivity.” Another group of scientists thinks that’s hypochondriac hogwash. The meta-reviews are contradictory.

I find the scientific uncertainty on the issue frustrating. Had we followed the precautionary principle, we would have made sure that constant exposure to electromagnetic fields was safe before we placed antennae on just about every rooftop and hillock. Now, of course, it’s too late. We’ve already turned ourselves on. I fear that if we ever do find out that our phones and wi-fi networks are affecting us negatively, we won’t be willing to turn them off. We love them too much to say goodbye.

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