Cellphones and the Demeaning of Life


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It's quite clear that the new technology has buttressed the power of self-regarding narcissism. The yuppie becomes a radio announcer of his own personal newscast. While it may seem incomprehensible to the unavoidably victimized listener, the violent talkers seem to have no regard for the aural privacy of other people. They appear to assume that their concerns take priority over the rights of everyone else. Loud cellphone users are like prolific super-farters at a perfume sampling. What comes out of them is offensive. They are sound-polluters with a viral substance, speech, that is highly communicable and impossible to avoid. Their pollution verges between outright bravado to rumors of intriguing intimacy. What no one wants to know no one can ignore. Their commitment to their own purposes is so absolute that their sense organs are not capable of registering the painful effect of their noisome interactions on others.


To people of exceptional and wholly admirable modesty and considerateness such as myself, they are incomprehensible. And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets even worse. While more than 60 percent of Swedes have mobile phones, and more than 40 percent of Italians, Americans still hover at 30 percent. And of course phones are one of those unusual products that become in greater demand the more there are. There are ever more people to phone, ever more people to interrupt sitting in trains, planes, concert halls and meditation rooms. There are ever more people to phone you. There is an ever firmer expectation that ever more people should be available at all times, never switched off, always available to that intrusive ring or vibration, always victimable by a caller.


There has always been a special tyranny of the telephone, as anyone knows who has waited for a cashier or teller or information clerk to deal with the live human in front of them?but who instead responded instantaneously to the urgency of a telephone. A friend in a bank line in Haifa despaired of a gabby teller, and rather than wait for live contact simply phoned her and transacted his business at the speed of electricity.


No surprise, because telephones maintain an astonishing hold over the obedience of people. Who can let a phone ring and ring? The Skinnerian response?answer! answer!?is so strong that a ringing unanswered phone can have the same disruptive effect on a social gathering as a yawn by an actor onstage?everyone else wants to yawn too. So everyone wants to answer and is aching for someone to do so. Who could it be? Is it a date calling? A burst pipe report? The state lottery? A stockbroker with news that Souffle.com has risen from $13 to $40? Your piano teacher cancelling Tuesday?


So just answer. Once I was on an elevator with the chairman of Bell Labs as we were going to a meeting and a buzzer sounded irritatingly. He asked what in evolution would have made that sound so unpleasant, and then we had a conversation about how the Bell system had to concoct a ring bothersome enough to have to answer but not so obnoxious that the hearer would tear the phone from the wall and baste it in water. The system succeeded brilliantly, and has enslaved everyone to its call. And the cellphone drastically increases the hours of the day when the categorical imperative to answer wields its spell.


Does the cellphone change patterns of life or exaggerate them? Evidently nearly half of Italian men under 35 live with their mothers?they are actually called mammoni. As we know, the Italian birthrate is among the lowest in the world, despite the proximity of the Vatican. And the birthrate may decline further yet?my friend Massimo tells me that the ubiquity of cellphones in Italy now means that mamas call their sons dozens of times a day, and presumably night too. The psychological umbilical cord is more durable than ever, and the state of effortless privacy called "maturity" is ever more difficult to attain.


There is vast benefit too to cellphones, especially for countries with poor landline phones. For example, in Morocco the number of cellphone subscribers has quadrupled in six months, to 800,000. While fixed lines when they work can service only 6 percent of the population, the mobile system can be accessed by 85 percent. Not only will this allow normal family interaction to occur readily and smoothly, but it clearly ratchets up the intensity of all forms of public discourse, including political. Chinese cellphone traffic is intense; all the ringing will drown out the tired platitudes of politicians who once controlled all the microphones in the country. In countries like Israel, with sworn enemies 10 minutes away by plane, where there has been chronic and realistic need for information, the cellphone has enhanced the already intense web of communication by radio, newspaper, television and regular phone. Both for reassurance and connection, huge numbers of people carry them all the time and use them nearly as much. And in this country we hear that phones are handed out to people in danger; malefactors are expected to take so long doing their evil doings that an appeal for rescue can be made. Unlikely, though with a car problem on a lonely road a cellphone is decisively congenial.


In any event, there are obviously sharply positive, practical impacts of the phones on business and the general conduct of organizations?to say nothing of personal lives of people late for movie dates or trying to renegotiate reservations in a traffic jam. But they have also the effect of enfeebling the bubble of space that protects people from a huge array of incursions on the necessary process of reviewing their lives in some conceptual solitude, so they can make their own judgments about how well they are following their own rules. Anyone who wants a quiet hour on a train or in a restaurant has to worry about the new crowding?sound crowding?caused by instruments of intimate communication, which, however, use nonprivate sound as their mode. And it's difficult to be neutral when two people out for dinner are on the blower much of the time with people in Asia or Merrill Lynch.


Somehow it demeans life. It's a form of dominance. My private life is more important than yours. And you're going to have rubbed in your ear how glamorous and enviable it is, this life of mine. Just because you came to a restaurant with a friend for a quiet chow is no reason for you to be spared my pride in the ruckus and fracas of my wide-ranging life. So just listen up. Just listen to how I describe to Frederico in Madrid the elegant complexity of my itinerary en route to the meeting with the bankers in Bern. How can you not be interested?


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