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TRAPPED IN AN ELECTRONIC JAIL

Modern communication devices leave us out of touch with ourselves.

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," said Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

What would Rousseau have made of the electron chains binding us to the BlackBerry and the iPhone? These are the silicon chains with which we have bound ourselves, losing much of our solitude and our ability to see the world around and inside us.

Consider an airplane flight. We are soaring across the country. We listen to music. We read books and newspapers. We sleep and dream. If you are like me, you look at the cloud formations and listen to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A major. Maybe you talk to your neighbors.

You are free to think and to reflect on existence and on your own small role in it. You are free to have long thoughts and memories of high school and college and the first time you met your future spouse.

Then, the airplane lands. Cell phones and PDAs snap into action. Long rows of lights light up on tiny little screens. These are people we absolutely have to talk to. Voice messages pour in, telling of children who got speeding tickets, of margin calls, of jobs offered and lost.

The bonds of obligation, like handcuffs, are clapped back onto our wrists, and we shuffle off to the servitude of our jobs and our mundane tasks. A circuit is completed: the passengers who were human beings a few moments earlier become part of an immense, all-engulfing machine of communication and control. Human flesh and spirit become plastic and electronic machinery.

What if we didn't have cell phones or PDAs? We would still have duties and families and bosses, but they would not be at our heels, yipping at us constantly, barking at us to do this or worry about that. We would have some moat of time and space around ourselves. Not now.

I keep thinking of my happiest moments of youth, walking home from school. I could smell the leaves burning in the late fall, think the long thoughts that young people are supposed to have, and dream of my adult life, when I would have the love of a great woman and a Corvette. Those were moments of power.

Now, there is no thought or reverie. There is nothing but gossip and making plans to shop or watch television. The cell phone and the PDA have basically replaced thought. When I was a young White House speechwriter, we communed with one another and otherwise read and wrote quietly in our offices. We had mental space. No more.

I spent much of the summer in my beloved Sandpoint, Idaho, far north in the Panhandle, overlooking Lake Pend Oreille. People there still have some freedom of thought. They walk along the streets without phones. They ride in their boats and water-ski or fish without any talking over the airwaves. They talk to one another. They look up at the sky. Businesspeople walk to their appointments, greeting the people they see, not talking to a small plastic box. In other words, they are connected to the glorious Bonner County sky and water and land, and, most of all, connected to their own ruminations.

What would we do if cell phones and PDAs disappeared? We would be forced to think again. We would have to confront reality. I have been at this for a long time now, and what I have seen of the loss of solitude and dignity is terrifying among those who travel and work, or even who stay still and work. They are slaves to connectedness. Their work has become indentured servitude. Their children and families are bound to the same devices, too.

But try a day without that invasion of your privacy. Or a week. You will be shocked at what you discover. It's called life. It's called nature. It's called getting to know yourself. I have a close friend who is in prison. He used to be imprisoned by his PDA. He has many stories, but the most haunting one is about how, without his phone, without his PDA, he has come to know, for the first time, who he is.

Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist.

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