CELL PHONE NATION

modern day life and device domination

“I’ve got a present for you” was how my boss greeted me one morning. Fear of some foul work assignment was alleviated when he handed me a brand new cell phone. “It’s a company cell phone” he said, then winked and nodded, adding “You can use it for all your personal calls, too.” I hesitantly thanked him while pondering the wink and nod. Winks and nods from authority figures always command suspicion. At least in my world they do…

The work associated with this “present” necessitated being on-call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Operating an “automobile recovery vehicle” sounds a tad more glamorous than “driving a wrecker.” The same goes for “seasonal precipitation management” versus “driving a snow plow truck.” Lets not mince words: I drove a wrecker and plowed snow, and both jobs required that the boss be able to contact me at any hour of the day or night.

me and my shadow

At first blush it was not only convenient having a phone with me all the time but also fun. But the novelty quickly wore off, the convenience and fun turning into being attached to a digital ball-and-chain. Married to a cell phone.

Just how invasive this cell phone had become was made clear to me one day after returning home from work. While getting ready to take a shower was when I caught myself doing the unthinkable: after hanging my towel on a hook, I carefully clipped the cell phone to the edge of the towel. I turned for a moment and then performed not a double-take, but a triple-take to glance back at what had just occurred. I had become a slave to my cell phone.

Disgusted, I took the phone into my bedroom and returned to shower phone-free. It took that ridiculous image of a cell phone attached to a towel next to the shower stall for me to realize how much power I had given that electronic device. And I’m not alone, as the following examples will reveal.

enough to wake the dead

While sitting in a church pew attending the funeral of a close friend, the melodic ringing of a cell phone harshly broke the tranquility during a period of silent meditation. It was more than obvious who the guilty party was -- one of the mourning attendees frantically tried to locate the offending cell phone in the depths of a huge tote bag. Don’t ask me why anyone would even need to carry a tote bag into a church for a funeral, let alone a cell phone. This episode in stupidity – this ridiculous reliance on, or perhaps better stated as addiction to technology, made a sad occasion even more sad, only in a different way.

dining with cell hellions

At a recent impromptu business meeting with several fellow entrepreneurs, our lunch break turned bizarre, at least to my way of thinking. Four of us were seated at a table casually chatting about minor successes, curious fiascoes and dubious dreams while eating salad, appetizers and deli sandwiches. Then it happened: a cell phone started its incessant ringing. The owner of the offending phone dutifully answered the call and proceeded to carry on the phone conversation right there at the table, seemingly oblivious to the rest of us. No “excuse me” and taking the call to another room, which there were many, or “let me call you back, as I’m having dinner with friends right now.” It was very peculiar and even offensive. But it got even more weird.

Apparently this incoming call reminded another diner of something of paramount importance, so he proceeded to unholster his trusty cell phone. The outlaw Josie Wales would have been in awe. Deftly flipping the cover lid open with a thumb, he was immediately greeted with third generation AI (artificial intelligence) technology’s “Who would you like to call?” audio prompt. A name was named, the cell phone dialed, connected, and another conversation started up right there at the table.

I hasten to add that these people were relatively new acquaintances of mine and not old buds from way back, so this apparent lack of basic, common manners was not due to longtime friendship that invariably relaxes formality. These two involved in their separate cell phone conversations were raised in good homes and therefore were no strangers to social graces. Manners are manners and rude is rude. Period.

at the sound of the tone

It’s truly amazing how we’ve become so accustomed to un-natural sounds in our lives. We are aenesticized to some sounds: numbed to their invasion. To other intrusive sounds we find ourselves response conditioned: the type of sound determines our next action.

And few things on planet Earth in 2003 command the attention of the telephone, be it a home phone or a cell phone. A phone rings. We answer it. Reflexive and automatically, as if by instinct.

Here’s a familiar scenario: two friends seated and chatting. At mid-sentence one of their cell phones rings and it’s immediately answered, leaving the sentence, conversation and friend all in a state of suspended animation. A conversation stalled in time and space. The ringing cell phone and future conversation taking precedence over an existing, real-time conversation. And nary a “please excuse me for a moment.”

It’s as if cell phone users have devolved into mere Pavlovian slaves of telephonic servitude. Years before the telephone was invented, Henry David Thoreau foresaw this trend in human behavior. He noted and wrote, and quite accurately, that “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

sometimes "cute" sucks

Last summer a picnic of sorts afforded me the luxury of a full afternoon of people watching in a foreign environment. One episode in this show was a live, cartoon-like scene involving a cell phone.

Someone’s phone started doing its incessant and irritating ringing tone. Then the unthinkable happened: a couple of drunk, middle-aged women started singing along with the ringer tone “song.” It was bizarre to witness, even for me. I’d have sooner expected the two of them to butcher one of their children right there on the picnic table than to form a musical trio with a cell phone!

a telephonic rendition of "who's on first"

With so many humans walking around with the same model cell phones, there were bound to be ringer tone collisions. A phone rings in a group of people and three or four (or more!) will grab their phones to answer, only to realize they all share a common ringer tone. Faces blush, people chuckle, and invariably one of the audio-hoodwinked blurts out “I thought that was my phone!” More chuckles.

In response to this, manufacturers frequently provide a menu of user-selectable ringer tones that can changed at will. But apparently the dozen or more ring tones that come standard with most cell phones is neither sufficient in quantity nor variety for some users. For some, style and unique rule their worlds, and their ringer tone must be an extension of their personality.

I gotta be me

For those addicted to style and unique, there’s a virtual plethora of ringer tones that are available on the Internet. And as if all this ringer tone silly and cute isn’t enough, there’s more. Silly and cute seem to breed silly and cute.

These “designer” ring tones, for lack of a better name, are big in Japan and throughout Europe, though have yet to take off in the United States. But experiences gained thus far in other countries have opened up a huge can of worms. Legal worms.

To wit, many tones are generated by, em…musical artists, apparently for lack of more conventional application of their talents. Enter intellectual property law, international performance copyright law, agents, lawyers and recording industry types. Needless to say, that mix makes for a potentially substantial amount of pond scum.

All the legal dust has yet to settle regarding ring-tones, but here’s an example of the existing insanity: in the United States, companies have to buy mechanical rights (the right to right to reproduce the music in a ring-tone) and performance rights (the right to play the music).

In the United States the jury is still out on whether or not ring-tones constitute a performance, but at least one recording industry company has released a rider in its ring-tone contracts that will let the company retroactively rake in 2% of revenues for performance rights, should ring-tones are ultimately determined to fall under that category.

telephone - misnomer of the day

Sending text messages over cell phones is increasingly popular, especially so in Japan. On the basic cell phone this can be an exercise in patience at best. So in answer to the “text messaging is clumsy” cries from the masses, some newer cell phones have miniature QWERTY keyboards. Some of these phones have color displays, can access the Internet and send images to other like-featured phones.

My question is this: if you’ve got a telephone and your friend has a telephone, why not just call and talk or leave a voice message? Why would one feel it necessary to send an Internet e-mail message from a phone to another similarly equipped phone? “Because I can” is not a valid answer.

It’s all the novelty of The New. For some, unless they have the newest, the most shiny, glossy, latest edition of anything, their lives are not complete. You’ll see them fighting for the goodies when MicroSoft releases a new operating system or Chrysler rolls out their latest limited edition automobile. And so it goes with cell phones. As soon as Nokia crams another “feature” into their phones, seekers of The New will buy them.

I know I’m probably going to come across like the dog in the manger from the Aesop fable (one who follows a secretive or underhand policy to prevent others from enjoying something he does not himself want). Far be it from me to dictate what one should or shouldn’t have or enjoy. However I do reserve the right to an opinion, as well as to comment on the affairs of Man.

So if walking around with a palm pilot, GPS system, laptop computer, police scanner, portable MP3 player, digital pager, micro-television and cell phone all strapped to their bodies help to make people feel free, then I wish them well. Have a ball. Enjoy. But that’s simply not what I consider freedom.

voluntary or involuntary servitude

Back in the late seventies or early eighties, I purchased and read a book that has long since gone into hiding or was left behind somewhere along the way. Though the title of the book escapes me, there were many wonderful ideas in it that I do remember – one of which is quite apropos to the subject at hand. It was from this book where I read about questioning the value of gadgetry and asking oneself whether said gadgetry was the slave serving or master dictating.

The author went on to discuss telephones, how we humans frequently bow and kneel before the altar of Ma Bell, and offered a suggestion to avoid becoming a slave to the telephone. The basic concept is once a day, every day, to ignore one incoming phone call. Sounds simple enough, right?

Try it. Try it sometime without checking the caller ID or screening the caller with the answering machine. It’s pretty difficult for most of us to do – just sitting there looking at the phone while it rings. What goes through our minds? “What if it’s an important call? An emergency? A huge business opportunity?”

The author of the book went on the say that if, in fact, it is an important call, emergency or business opportunity, the caller will most certainly call back later. We can handle the call then. But the importance of ignoring one incoming phone call a day is an exercise in demonstrating to ourselves once a day, every day, who the boss is.

door number one, number two, or three?

Just as predicted in the mid-1980s, the personal communications explosion has occurred. We’re in the thick of it right now, and like it or not, things will never be the same. Time marches on, though there are plenty of forks in the road to ponder and paths to decide upon.

Choices. We all have them to make. It is ultimately a choice whether cell phones and other technological “advances” insidiously burrow deeper and deeper into our very beings, penetrating deeper and deeper into our lives. And it is for each of us to individually decide whether existing and future technology are actually modern conveniences or invasions of privacy. And in making that decision, we also decide whether we’re to be slave or master.

Hold my calls…

Copyright © 2003 by Jeff Bauer
All rights reserved

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