Cellphones and the Demeaning of Life

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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

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

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?