October 31st, 2004

Reach Out and Annoy Someone

By Jonathan Rowe
Washington Monthly

In the latter 1990s, in the midst of the high tech boom, I spent a lot of time
in a coffee shop in the theater district in San Francisco. It was near Union
Square, the tourist hub, and I observed a scene play out there time and time
again. Mom is nursing her mocha. The kids are picking at their muffins, feet
dangling from their chairs. And there’s Dad, pulled back slightly from the table,
talking into his cell phone.

I would watch the kids’ faces, vacant and a little forlorn, and wonder what
happens to kids whose parents aren’t there even when they are. How can we expect
kids to pay attention if we are too busy to pay attention to them? Peter Breggin,
the psychiatrist, says much "attention deficit disorder" is really
"dad deficit disorder." Maybe he’s right.

As I sat there, I would think, too, about the disconnect between the way we
talk about the economy in the U.S. and the way we actually experience it. The
media were enthusing daily about the nation’s record "expansion,"
and here were these kids staring off into space. It was supposed to be a "communications
revolution," and yet here, in the technological epicenter, the members
of this family were avoiding one another’s eyes.

With technology in particular, we can’t seem to acknowledge the actual content
of our economic experience; and we discuss the implications only within a narrow
bandwidth of human concern. Is there a health risk? Might the thing cause cancer?
That’s about it with cell phones, computers, genetic engineering, and a host
of other new developments. As a result, we must await the verdict of the doctors
to find out whether we are permitted to have qualms or reservations. Jacob Needleman,
the contemporary philosopher, says that we Americans are "metaphysically
repressed," and the inability to discuss the implications of technology‹except
in bodily or stock market terms‹is a case in point.

I don’t discount the significance of cancer. But there is something missing
from a discussion that can’t get beyond the most literal and utilitarian concerns.
Actually, some of the problems with cell phones aren’t at all squishy or abstract.
If you’ve been clipped by a car tooling around the corner while the driver sits
gabbing, cell phone in hand, then you are aware of this. The big problem, of
course, is the noise. For sheer intrusiveness, cell phones rank with mega-amp
car stereoes and political commercials, and they are harder to escape.

We all know the drill. First the endearing beep, which is like an alarm clock
going off at 5:30 a.m. Then people shout into the things, as though they are
talking across the Cross Bronx Expressway. It’s become a regular feature at
movies and ball games, restaurants and parks. I’ve heard the things going off
in men’s room stalls. They represent more than mere annoyances. Cell phones
affect life in ways that are, I suspect, beyond the capacity of the empirical
mind to grasp.

Travel is an example. Thomas Carlyle once advised Anthony Trollope to use travel
as a time to "sit still and label his thoughts." For centuries, travel
played this quiet role. I have a hunch that the eloquence and depth of this
nation’s founders had partly to do with their mode of travel. Madison, Jefferson,
and the others had that long ride to Philadelphia in which to sort out their
thoughts and work over their sentences in their minds. There was time in which
thought could expand; we can hear the echoes today in the spaciousness and considered
quality of such documents as the Federalist Papers‹a quality that political
argument today rarely achieves.

In more recent times, trains have served as a link to that kind of travel.
I used to look forward to Amtrak rides almost as a sanctuary. They provided
precious hours in which to work or read or simply muse without the interruptions
of the telephone and office. But now, cell phones have caught up with me. They
have turned Amtrak into a horizontal telephone booth; on a recent trip to New
York my wife and I were besieged by cell phones and their cousins, high-powered
walkmen, literally on all sides. The trip, which used to be a pleasure, has
become one long headache.

I wrote the president of Amtrak to tell him this. I tried to be constructive.
There is a real opportunity here for Amtrak to get ahead of the curve, I said.
Why not provide "Quiet Cars" the way they provided No Smoking cars
when smoking first became an issue? Amtrak could give riders a choice, which
is what America is supposed to be about‹and which Amtrak’s main competitors,
the airlines, cannot do. This seemed like a no-lose proposition. The yakkers
could yak, others could enjoy the quiet, and Amtrak could have a PR coup. (In
a just world, the cell phoners would have to sit together in Noise Cars, but
I was trying to be accomodating.)

The argument seemed pretty convincing. As the weeks passed, I imagined my letter
circulating at the highest levels. Perhaps I’d even be called in as a consultant.
Now that I have the reply, I’m not holding my breath. But the reasons that Amtrak
offered for inaction are worth a few moments, since they suggest how quickly
a technology invokes its own system of rationalization.

For example, the letter said that Amtrak does not want to inconvenience the
"responsible" users of cell phones. That’s typical; try to isolate
a few aberrant users and so legitimate the rest. But cell phones are like cigarettes
in this respect‹they are intrusive when used normally, as intended. They
beep like a seat belt warning, or play a tinny melody like a musical toilet
seat. People usually shout into them. They produce secondhand noise, just as
cigarettes produce secondhand smoke; and from the standpoint of the forced consumer
of this noise, the only responsible use is non-use.

Then the letter turned the issue upside down. "We hesitate to restrict
responsible users of cell phones," it said, "especially since many
customers find train travel to be an ideal way to get work done." But that
is exactly why cell phones should be restricted‹because many travelers
are trying to get work done. For one thing, the notion that people are busily
working on cell phones is New Economy hype. I have been a coerced eavesdropper
on more conversations than I could count. I have listened to executives gab
about their shopping hauls and weekend conquests. I once had to endure, between
Philadelphia and New York, an extended brag from an associate sports agent regarding
the important people he was meeting. It is not often that I hear anyone actually
discussing work.

But more importantly, consider the assumption here. We have two people who
arguably are trying to get some work done. There’s the cell phone user, who
wants to make noise. And there’s myself (and probably numerous others), who
would appreciate a little quiet. Why does the noise automatically take precedence
over the quiet? Why does the polluter get first dibs on the air?

This is where the trail starts to get warm, I think. There is something about
technology that enables it to take front seat in any situation it enters; which
is to say, there is something in ourselves that seeks to give it this seat.
A Maine essayist by the name of John Gould once noted this about the ordinary
telephone. He was up on his roof one day when his wife called to him about something.
"Later," he said, "Can’t you see I’m working?" Later came,
and this time the phone rang. Gould scrambled down the ladder in a frantic attempt
to get to that phone.

Afterwards he reflected upon what had happened. His wife could wait, he thought,
but the phone rang with the authority of Mussolini in a bad mood. Most of us
probably have had this experience. We’ve been making a purchase when the phone
rang and the clerk dropped us cold and got into a long conversation on the phone.
Or perhaps we had a visitor in our own office and interrupted the conversation
to pick up the phone. Whatever is happening, the telephone comes first. Call
waiting ratchets up the authority structure like a dictatorship that adds minions
at the top. Now there are intrusions upon the intrusions; how many of us hear
that click and think, "Oh, just let it ring."

What is it about these things that makes us so obedient, and so oblivious to
that which lies outside them‹such as actual people? I once asked a man
who was bellowing into a cell phone in the coffee shop in San Francisco why
he was talking so loudly. A bad connection, he said. It had not crossed his
mind that anything else mattered at that moment. Like computers and television,
cell phones pull people into their own psychological polar field, and the pull
is strong. I’ve watched people complete a conversation, start to put the thing
away, and then freeze. They sit staring at it, as though trying to think of
someone else to call. The phone is there. It demands to be used, almost the
way a cigarette demands to be smoked. Does the person own the cell phone, or
is it the other way around?

And what does that suggest about where this "communications revolution"
is taking us? When I was in Hong Kong a year and a half ago, it was becoming
a cell-phone hell. The official statistics said there was one phone for every
two people, but it often felt like two for one. They were everywhere; the table
scenes in the splendid food courts in the high rise malls were San Francisco
to the second or third power. At a table with four people, two or three might
be talking on the phone. You’d see a couple on a date, and one was talking on
the phone.

In a way I could understand the fixation. Hong Kong is crowded almost beyond
belief. It makes parts of Manhattan feel like Kansas, and I suspect that a cell
phone offers an escape, a kind of crack in space. It is an entrance to a realm
in which you are the center of attention, the star. Access becomes a status
symbol in itself. A lawyer friend of mine there described the new ritual at
the start of business meetings. Everyone puts their cell phone on the conference
table, next to their legal pad, almost like a gun. My power call against yours,
gweilo (Chinese for foreigner; literally "ghost"). The smallest ones
are the most expensive, and therefore have the most status.

In places like Hong Kong, moreover, most people live in cramped quarters, which
means consumption must take less space consuming forms. That’s all understandable.
To a lesser degree, such considerations apply in places such as Washington and
New York.

There is something lonely about a wired world. The more plugged in everyone
else is the more we feel we have to be there too. But then effect becomes cause.
The very thing that pulls us away from live public spaces begins to make those
spaces uninhabitable. It is the pollution of the aural commons, the enclosure
of public space by giant telecommunications firms, and the result is to push
us all towards private space‹if we can afford it.

This is technological Reaganism, a world in which personal desires are all
that matters and to hell with everything else. So everything else starts to
go to hell. The libertarian dogmatics of the computer crowd thus become self-fulfilling
prophecies. But there’s this, too. Not only are they saying, "Get out of
my face." They are also saying, "I can’t stop myself. I’m hooked."
It is a communications revolution all right, but one that requires psychologists
and anthropologists to understand. Economists just don’t get it. They couch
these events in the language of Locke and Smith‹of rational people seeking
a rational self-interest. But in reality it’s the old dark stuff: the vagrant
passions and attachments of the human heart.

But forgive me. I forgot. This is the longest economic expansion on record
we are talking about here so we aren’t supposed to get too deep. So I’ll just
close with a prediction. Secondhand noise is going to become a bigger issue
in the next decade than secondhand smoke was in the last. It will be part of
the big second wave of environmentalism‹the fight against cognitive pollution,
the despoiling of the aural and visual commons, whether by cell phones and walkmen
or by advertising everywhere.

It’s going to be a wrenching battle, but I predict at least one early victory.
Quiet cars on Amtrak within five years. Meanwhile, I have my eye on a company
in Israel, called NetLine Technologies, that makes small portable devices to
block cell phones. Technically, they are illegal, and I doubt that more technology
ultimately is the answer. But they do raise a useful question. If some people
can use technology to pollute the air we share, why can’t other people use technology
to clean it up again?


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