Together Apart

together apart an excerpt from shane hipps flickering pixels

A few years ago, AT&T launched an ad campaign for its mobile phone services. In it, a business traveler checks into a stark and lifeless motel room. He sits alone on the bed, dejected and lonely. The ad then cuts to him sitting in an airport after his flight has been delayed. A close-up of the man’s face reveals despair and resignation. Alone. Again.

From out of nowhere, we then hear the sweet voice of a little girl. “Hi, Daddy,” she says. We cut to a wide shot to reveal his five-year-old daughter now magically seated next to him. The man beams, and he begins laughing and talking with his daughter.

As they talk, the bustle of pedestrians obscures our view of the little girl and her dad. The moment the pedestrians pass, the scene changes. The seat where his daughter was is now empty. The business traveler is alone again, only he is still happy. It turns out that he’s talking on his cell phone with his little girl, exuding the same elation as when his daughter was sitting next to him. “For the most important calls,” we’re told, “reach out.”

The Tribal Drum

The ad from AT&T shows us the great gift of cell phones. It’s true that they can keep us more connected when we’re in far-off places. However, the ability to connect from far away didn’t originate with the cell phone, but with a series of inventions between 1850 to 1890 that harnessed the power of electricity. They completely dissolved and then reconstituted the communication structure in the West. One of them—the radio—used waves in the air instead of wires on the land to communicate. Oddly enough, this can be seen as the father of the cell phone. Just like cell phones, the radio allowed acoustic communication to take place across vast distances with little regard for the limitations of physical space.

When radio programs began broadcasting to a highly literate and individualistic culture, there was a reversal of sorts. The radio returned our culture to the experience of the tribal campfire with its shared stories, songs, and banter. Marshall McLuhan was among the first to recognize that the radio led to a retribalization of our culture, observing, “Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization” (300).

With radio we began to share simultaneous oral experiences on a scale never before known to human culture. You are reading this article on your own private time, but to participate in a radio event you listen in at the same moment as thousands or millions of others. You’re connected to a much larger shared experience.

Television extended radio’s power of group experience on a mass scale, helping to reverse the individualism of the print era. An individual is defined in part by a set of experiences unique to that person. An individual has a unique point of view, but that unique point of view disappears during a television program. Consider the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The millions of us who watched the catastrophic events on television witnessed the same event at the same moment from the same camera angles—this was a group experience on a global scale.

Over time we become accustomed to these sorts of group experiences. We start to feel connected with others who are watching the same program we are. We become a tribe across great distances and the individualism of the print age grows dim.

Cell Phone Kiss

During the AT&T wireless campaign, Nextel launched its own ad. It opened with a wide shot of a beautiful church with a wedding ceremony already in progress. A close-up revealed that the bride, groom, and priest are all holding cell phones in the walkie-talkie position, and the ceremony is performed with an efficiency that would leave NASCAR pit crews salivating. In the next ten seconds we hear the entire ceremony. A Nextel chirp precedes the priest’s opening words:

Priest: “Mike. Sue.”

Couple: “Yes.”

Priest: “Love and honor?”

Couple: “Yes.”

Priest:  “Sickness, health?”

Couple: “Uh-huh.”

Priest: “Objections?”


Priest:  “Rings?”

[Bride and groom flash jazz-hands to show rings already on fingers]

Priest [to groom]: “Do you?”

Groom: “I do.”

Priest [to bride]: “Do you?”

Bride: “I do.”

Priest: “Kiss?”

[Bride and groom make a kissing sound through their respective phones.]

Priest: “Husband and wife.”

[Congregation cheers.]

Priest [shouting]: “Next!”

The ad ends with the tag line, “Nextel. Done.” The message of the ad is simple: Cell phones make you more efficient. Besides connecting us, efficiency is the main reason people buy them. You get more done in less time. Yet every time I saw this ad, I gazed at the television with the curious head tilt of the RCA dog in front of the phonograph. An efficient wedding, what a strange thing to depict. Nextel, while attempting to highlight one benefit of cell phones, accidentally showcased an important truth: cell phones often put artificial barriers between us and our loved ones. They separate us.

Taken together, these ads reveal the paradoxical effect of mobile technology on our culture. It has a remarkable capacity to bring those far away much closer (AT&T), while at the same time making those near us more distant (Nextel). There are two opposing forces at work in us: collision and division. Wireless technology is complex, contradictory, and deserves to be evaluated carefully.

The Tribe of Individuals

Perhaps I’m taking a couple of ads too seriously. Both are clearly exaggerations meant to entertain and sell. But the point is closer to home than many of us realize.

I have two friends who are best friends. Each was the best man in the other’s wedding. They talk every day, sometimes more than once, on their cell phones. They live only a few blocks from each other. Yet recently, one told me that he hadn’t seen his best friend in two months—two months! That’s more than a hundred phone calls, and countless chances to hop in the car or walk a few blocks to see each other. Their friendship is withering from lack of true contact; each person has separately lamented to me that they don’t feel they know the other person. Is it a stretch to think that the illusion of real contact provided by the cell phone has something to do with this sad story?

Electronic culture disembodies and separates us from those closest to us. Most of us are quite unaware of this phenomenon and, in fact, believe our technology is bringing us closer.

I was eating lunch with that same friend when his phone rang and he answered it. He briefly apologized for the interruption and then joined his wireless conversation. In that moment, he was deported electronically, leaving me to dine by myself. At least I did have the pleasure of listening to half of a conversation—oh, and I also enjoyed watching him laugh at a joke that must have been quite funny.

The near become far, and the far are brought near.

This is the paradox of the electronic age. In this sense it retrieves and combines the characteristics of two previous media eras. If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals. This is a confused state of being in which we are thrown together from far-off places. We desire connection and community in our increasingly nomadic existence—yet we wander around the globe, glancing off other digital nomads without ever knowing or being known.

It is a condition we create with the smallest decisions. But it is just as easily undone. I was sitting with a different friend at lunch one day. His cell phone rang. I stopped talking and said “you can get that if you need to.” Without blinking or checking the phone he said, “You took the time and effort to get together with me, whoever is calling didn’t. Now, what were you saying?” All he did was ignore his phone long enough to be present where his body was. Not only did I feel honored, it made me appreciate the gift of being there. Prioritizing those who are physically present can have a transforming effect on us when so many are digitally absent.

Empathy at a Distance

This unprecedented collision of two previous eras generates other paradoxes as well. If oral culture is intensely connected or empathic and print culture is distant or detached, then our electronic experience creates a kind of empathy at a distance (Gozzi, 127). This is what happens when famines, wars, and natural disasters halfway around the world flicker into our lives on our various screens. Our immediate response is often to give money, which is our way of extending compassion to far-off places. This response is good.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement gained popular support in the North because television exposed the horror and injustice of white police officers pummeling with fire hoses the bodies of defenseless black citizens. The public’s emotional outrage over this situation provided President Kennedy with the necessary mandate to take action. Television images were gas on the fire of the Civil Rights movement.

Televised disasters and injustices extend our feelings to those who are suffering around the globe. These feelings often prompt actions. Yet they are emotional actions, since television bypasses the intellect. Whatever action we do take is short-lived. This is a kind of self-protection, since we never know when the next earthquake, hurricane, or famine will fill our screens. So while our hearts go out to people suffering far away, the medium of television is also encouraging apathy and inaction. Like our self-image problems, though, this isn’t our fault.

The human psyche isn’t designed to withstand the full gravity of planetary suffering. Numbness and exhaustion are natural reactions. Feeling helpless and hopeless is nearly inevitable. The heart can only stretch so far so many times before it is worn thin and wrung dry. This is empathy at a distance.

Over time, if unchecked, this numbness undermines our ability to extend compassion to those in our own city, neighborhood, or even our own homes. The pain of the world, experienced through television, can keep us from understanding and alleviating the pain we encounter in our daily lives. The task of recalibrating our psyche and reigniting compassion must begin with local relationships.

I sat recently with a friend whose wife had left him. He wept bitterly as the shock and numbness began to wear off and deep grief emerged. I offered a glass of water, put my arm around him, and wept with him. Eventually, he talked and I listened. He had a lot to say, while I had nothing. By the end of the evening, we were utterly exhausted.

In the midst of this darkness, I did not feel hopeless or apathetic. If anything, I felt a renewed commitment to help any way I could. My response is hardly a reflection on what a good guy I am—it just shows that I’m human. That’s how we’re made. When pain and suffering are right in front of us, we’re moved to act and respond. Exposure to local traumas revitalizes our compassionate instincts.

Direct service to people around us heals our feelings of helplessness and apathy. It is quite possible that the needs in some far-off place are greater. But you aren’t there. You’re here, and there are needs galore in your own back yard. We do what we can, where we are, and watch the world change life by life.

Who do you know locally that is in need? Practice compassion with them and be made whole again.



McLuhan, Marshall. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 300.

Gozzi, Raymond Jr. (2004). Paradoxes of Electric Media. Explorations in Media Ecology, 3, (2), 127-130.


Excerpt from chapter 2, Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps (Zondervan, 2009). Reprinted with permission.

(Photo Credit: Chad Cooper)

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About the Contributor

Shane Hipps

Shane Hipps
Shane Hipps is the former Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He started his career advertising Porsche Cars North America, then attended Fuller Theological Seminary, after which he lead a small Mennonite Church in Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, Flickering Pixels, and Selling Water By The River. He is currently a full time teacher, speaker, and writer. His personal website is

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