Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Faustian Bargain of Cell Phones

Images taken from Internet

The omnipresent cell phone has proven to be a true Faustian bargain, a term that social critic Neil Postman used to describe a role of technology. As an axiom of Media Ecology posits, when a technology is introduced into a culture, the culture not only cannot go back, but that the new technology does not change any one thing, it changes everything.

It is not that cell phones exist that is a problem. In fact, I can cite a number of times it has proven quite useful, such as when trying to locate pals, help when directions are needed, calls for emergency help, or in one case I know of personally, a cell phone camera has helped an activist friend prove a case of false arrest.

The problem lies in the difference between publicly needing and wanting to make a call. All those people who used to ride public transportation and basically spend the ride staring at their nails are now either on the phone loudly chatting with no purpose other than to kill time, or sitting with a blank stare holding their still phones tightly in their hands as if it were some fetish object, or religious icon. Certainly it has taken the place of the rosary and worry beads.

We all have stories of inappropriate behavior mixed with TMI. Cases in point for me include a woman angrily yelling at her husband for leaving rehab and spending their money buying drugs when there were already some in their apartment, and one guy whining to a pal that if he doesn’t get $12,000 to “Vinny,” he’ll never be caught up with the interest, which would be disastrous for his own knees.

Of course, the biggest issue is not content, but rather a mix of context (spatial or semantic environment) and volume. Certainly, if one is in public – and as a comedian once pointed out, there is no privacy in public – if one must scream on a phone to be heard, than one should not be on the phone at all.

The New York MTA is going to have the subway stations, and then the tunnels, wired for cell phone use “in case of an emergency” (i.e., fear of terrorism). An easy solution is to just have it wired to accept 911 calls, but there is no financial gain in that, as it is the telephone companies, who stand to gain the most reward, who are going to do the wiring.

While the noise pollution toll is heavy, so is the body politic. How one uses their own physicality when in relation/ship with a cell phone can also prove problematic. The day I write this, I was exiting a subway stop, and the line to get up the stairs was blocked by someone climbing very slowly because he was checking his phone. Waiting the 30 literal seconds to climb the stairs was too much to wait; it was certainly more important for this person to slow up 100 people behind him because he could not wait, even for one flight of stairs.

We’ve all seen the weaving and/or slow drivers on the road. Used to be it was usually the classic “old man in a hat,” but now it is the person deeply engaged with someone not present. The scariest case of this I’ve encountered was when I saw a huge Yukon style SUV often sliding into my lane in front of me. As I sped up to pass this scary vehicle, I glanced over and saw the woman driving: she had a cell phone cradled in her neck. A cup of coffee in her right hand, and a cigarette in her left, while she drove this tank with two fingers.

There is also the proximity of the polluter and the pollutee. Sitting on a subway car at the end seat by the door, I’ve had people hold onto the overhead bar and lean right next to my head, or leaning on the door facing me, yelling into a phone. When asked to not do that, they get huffy, or pretend not to hear, or even threaten me, the person who is stuck there, forced to listen to this volumous talk right into my ear. After all, in their mind, they’ve paid their $2 and so have earned the right to be abusive.

It needs to be socially acceptable to say, “Please stop yelling in my ear.” There is nothing in that request that is a personal affront to the speaker; it is simply a request not to be disrespected.

At times when parts of eateries were set aside for smokers, I remember seeing a one-panel cartoon titled “How smokers view restaurants.” The image was of a room with one part that had a sign that said, “Smoking Section,” and as if by magic, the smoke only stayed on their side. Public cell phone users seem to practice this, as if they are the only ones who are affected by their noise. And don’t get me started with the T-Mobile walkie-talkie style phones. I hope I never meet the person who invented that little piece of modern communication. He will certainly get an earful from me, during which I will interrupt each sentence with a blearing electronic sound.

There is a man who rides the Long Island Rail Road who has quite famously been ferocious with the rude and the loud. He has yelled at people, gotten into physical fights, and even threw coffee in people’s faces. While I agree with his argument about the lack of necessity of the interruption, the excessive methods employed by this ex-police officer are equally abusive, if not more so. Asking someone not to be rude is not the same as assault.

I once commented to my brother that the start of this whole public lack of regard as far as sound stems from the VCR. My argument is that people got used to talking during films that were being played in their own living room, especially those who grew up with the medium, so it was a natural transition to be talking in theaters. This led the way for people to feel natural conversational in public, which was exacerbated by the cell phone.

He disagreed. What he felt was the turning point was the pre-Walkman boom box, where people started blasting music in public spaces, making disregard for others’ silence moot. I believe my statement is truer, because while the boom box is “others” making noise (the music), talking during a pre-recorded film is more a personal “expression,” if you will.

Mostly, though, I think we are both correct. Both the VCR and boom box had a cultural effect and affect. Whether the expansion of cell phones is to the positive or the negative is in the hands of whomever is in control of that supposedly personal technology, which has changed everything.

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