Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cellular Level

Jury duty is a pretty bad deal. All day long you have to listen to people you don't know talk about things you don't care about. But at least there are recesses. And when one is announced everyone rushes outside to - smoke? No, to satisfy another oral fixation. Everyone on the jury, in direct violation of the law, whips out their cell phones and begins discussing the case. Now I am listening to people I don't know talk to people I can't see about things I don't care about.

The next day I go to the local community college for some peace and quiet. Citadel of knowledge, site of concentration, meditation, and quiet contemplation of the questions of the universe. Yes, but now students are multi-tasking, studying and yakking at the same time. Cell phones have shrunk so much that everyone on campus seemed to be talking to themselves. But talking they were, at great length, in impressive volumes, about absolutely nothing at all.

I retreat and head downtown. Here I find the natives to be also talking to themselves, but in this case there was no cell phones in use. But the problem was the same. If standing by yourself, nodding, and blabbering on to no one visible was once considered to be evidence of insanity, now it is evidence of productivity. The residents of Bellevue have escaped, upgraded and are now the status quo.

Cell phone technology was pioneered during the Vietnam War, and the initial recipients of the two-shoeboxes-taped-together-sized devices used them under fairly stressful conditions. What is stressing the wireless windbags of today though is not incoming Vietcong mortar fire. Today what is causing their acute distress is that their instant gratification has been delayed.

The vast majority of cell phone conversations distill down to this: I want something/somebody, they are not in my immediate vicinity, and somebody will have to pay for this crime. "Where are you? When is this happening? Where is my thing? What are you doing that is more interesting than anything I could do right now that might actually make me think or move in any appreciable way?" That's really what people are talking about, that is what all of this investment and infrastructure is supporting: I am bored, I am unable to pacify myself, I have the patience of a late afternoon Mayfly, and I want to be distracted from myself immediately.

I was waiting for a plane at JFK Airport. Construction has been going on here, oh, since the place opened, and so two waiting areas had been combined into one combination sauna/penalty box. We were packed in tighter than happily married sardines. There were exactly 8 open seats and these were in the middle of the room. They formed a perfect square around the reason why no one was occupying them.

In the center seat (the Paul Lynde spot you might say), was a large fellow with a large voice with a small phone with a large address book. He was bored, as we all were, but he chose to relieve his Weltschmerz by calling up everybody in the known universe and shooting the shit with them. We, however, were the shit, and we did indeed feel shot. If the gate gulag had taken a vote on a cold-blooded murder, I believe it would have passed the required two-thirds majority easy. And if we played back the tapes I don't think any jury in the world would've convicted us.

People are yakkety-yakking in bookstores, in elevators, in the stall next to yours. This is clearly wrong. It’s bad enough to be trying to do your business next to someone holding court on the next throne, but how would you like to be the person on the other end of the conversation?

Clearly things have gotten out of hand and once again a labor saving device has saved us labor but has withdrawn a proportional amount from our quality of life:

·        The telegraph obliterated business mail, but meant that we had to be on call 24 hours a day.
·        The radio gave us up-to-the minute news, but also meant that there was no time for cooler, more rational heads to attempt to head off World War 1 before nationalistic fervor was stoked.
·        The fact that Thomas Edison projected that his phonograph would be used primarily as a way to preserve great speeches, shows the vast gulf between an inventions original purpose, and its inevitable slacker destiny.
·        Television, like the phonograph, was intended as an educational and culturally enriching tool. And we all know how well that turned out. The first long distance television broadcast (1927) was a speech by President Hoover. Next week on Fox, watch lions eat Christians.

And the cell phone, the latest instant necessity has fallen right into line. Has your quality of life increased since you were able to be contacted anywhere at any time? Are you more efficient now that you can be held immediately accountable for any lapse? Is your life better, or are you just more liable for it?

With absolute pinpoint control over where everybody in your life is, there is no reason to ever be late for anything ever again. Except traffic, which we cannot control. And that makes it exponentially more stressful. So we use one hand and half of our concentration to apologize for all of those lousy drivers ahead of us.

Personally I love it when people are late to meet me. Take your time, please. I will actually show up early for an appointment just so my counterparts can be that much more tardy. Why? Because then I can relax. There is no room in our society for non-activity now. If you are awake, you should be productive about everything you do, business or pleasure, from morning till night. The only break we get, the only moment of unplanned non-action is when you're meeting someone and they don't show up on time. Only then can I relax, guilt-free, safe on the moral high ground. Ah, but when they do show up, the first thing they say is that they tried to call me but they didn't have my cell phone number. Uh-oh. And then I must confess: I don't have a cell phone.

Why? Because of my neighbor. I lived in a downstairs studio for two years. Upstairs was my landlord, Stephanie, who was a real estate broker operating out of her condo. She had one of those belt hook and headset models hidden in her mounds of dubious blond hair, and she never took it off and she never stopped working because of it. She would walk her dog, take the trash out, wash her car, and I would hear talking out loud to nobody all around me. Labor saving? She was a slave to her labor saving device, a sacrificial pile of nerves on the altar of productivity. She never had a moment to herself, and because of that I never had a moment to myself.

I retreated again and rode my bike down to the local Stop & Shop, Gas & Pass, Piss & Puke, whatever you call them. While happily choosing flavors of faded pop-tarts, I was suddenly assualted by an ongoing conversation that breezed in, rattledthe window panes with mindless phone drivel, and stormed out.

I paid for my gummi-bear Pop-tarts as the teenage echoes died away and asked the guy behind the counter if that was an exceptionally loud conversation, a really stupid one, or both. He smiled. "You can hear 'em when they open their car doors and you brace yourself, like it's incoming enemy fire."

I told him my Vietnam war/cell phone factoid. He nodded. "Emotional support, artillery support" (shrug) "same deal". I then queried him on whether the new Usher album really did suck ass, and whether it was ethical to be Erica's friend more than Heather's, just because Erica has a cuter brother. He chuckled. "I'll take Jay-Z myself over Usher, but the part I liked was when she announced that she was going to try to score a bottle of booze off me. That's why she stormed out of here." We shared a laugh and I made a friend. Maybe cell phones really are bringing people closer together, if only in self-defense.

Here is where Erica's brother's future girlfriend screwed up: When you are talking on a telephone you are speaking at twice the volume of a non-phone conversation. Why? Because you only have one ear to hear yourself with. The other ear is dedicated to the incoming voice, and because the thing is mashed up against your skull, you effectively cut your atmospheric hearing in half. So you raise your voice unconsciously to compensate.

Have you ever asked someone a question when they are wearing headphones? They will shout back their answer, and not even be aware that they are shouting. Same idea with cell phones. The level of volume in the world has risen dramatically, the level of politeness has decreased proportionally, and the level of discourse is circling the drain.

Is there ever a time when I wished I had one? Sure. These times are called emer-gen-cies. I think cell phones should be used only for emergencies, like a fire extinguisher. Break glass, dial in access code and point your phone voice away from innocent strangers.

So I propose some new rules: cell phones should have the same rights and cache that smoking does now. That is, it should either be done outside, or in some sealed off area where its contaminants (sounds in this case, not carcinegous smoke, but pollution just the same) are contained.

I needed someplace to commune, away from all of this communication. I took my pop-tarts and rode to Pleasure Point cliff, overlooking a beautiful surfing spot. I was finally, happily bored there, just zoning out, watching the surfers, when one of them finished a good run, sat down on his board, and - yep - whipped his cell phone out of its waterproof case. I could hear him - "Dude!" - all the way up on top of the cliff.

So I rode to the mall and decided to join the consumer electronics generation. If you can't escape 'em, put it on the plastic. I bought some big, clunky, old school, over-the-whole-ear headphones. And I wear them often. And they are plugged into Nothing. At. All.

Angus McMahan
P.S. Admiral Karen and I did eventually get cell phones. The first thing we learned how to do with them is to call each other. The second thing we learned was where the “off” button is. My phone lives in the bottom of my fanny pack and I use it about once a week. And 90% of those conversations are me stating that I am stopping to bring home BBQ for dinner.


  1. I absolutely agree! I bought my cell phone over nine years ago, and it still works because it is off more than 95% of the time. It even has the original battery.

    Maggie (from Aaron & Wendy's solstice party)

  2. Hey Maggie,

    Thanks for the nice comment. I'm always glad when people chime in with "I do that too!" - makes me feel slightly less weird.



  3. I agree with everything that you said. Except the part where we use our "other ear" to hear ourselves. I hear myself perfectly fine, thank you very much. No atmospheric hearing needed. And while I agree with everything you said, I must admit ashamedly, I not only have a cell phone, I have a *very* smart cell phone. Okay, I have two of them. But, okay, it's overkill, but, see, my boss gave me one, and while its a nice smart phone, it's rather slow. Great personality though!! So, I had to get a faster one. That's cooler. And red.

  4. Not a problem: I have four iPods. As long as you are not abusing your phone in public (Or rather abusing the public with your phone) you are welcome to play in my sandbox.

  5. They call it "cell yell" on the trains. I'm for technology, as long as it doesn't disturb others. (I should not be able to hear your music sitting ten feet away on a 70mph train.)

    And what amuses me:
    "hey, it's ___." (pause) "Nothing, I'm on the train." ...