Vol. 11, No. 13 June 25 - July 22, 1998


Gadgets Have Them Confined to Their Cells


Cell phones are mildly amusing but mostly discomforting. Every day, I see people whip out their phones in the middle of the street, in oncoming traffic no less, and I ask myself: can the business at hand truly be so urgent as to make the minute or so it takes to reach the curb absolutely unendurable?

Just last month a group of us were engrossed in research at a public library. A cell phone rang. "Hidden" among nearby shelves, its owner proceeded to haggle aloud with the party on the other end for a solid half hour. Such business conferences have become an integral part of my time at the movies as well.

On the one hand, we fierily assert an individual's right to privacy and defend it as if life depended on it. On the other hand, we snatch up every piece of technology that allows us to be reached anyplace, anytime - which is clearly an erosion of privacy for both the phone owners and those around them. Also, we Americans exalt individuality, yet our adoration of cell phones betrays an all-consuming dependency on others. How else to interpret our desire to never lose contact?

As with all compulsions, our communication mania has tragic repercussions. For one thing, those of us who treasure our privacy and safeguard ourselves with a minimum of inaccessibility are increasingly regarded as dysfunctional. (Typical holders of this perspective are lovers and bosses.) Also, the home, steadily losing its vital separate identity from the office, is no longer honored as a space for quiet relaxation and strictly personal pursuits. And even though as a society we're "all connected," we're light years from being in communion.

There's also the matter of an epidemic of impatience. When it comes to, for example, a return phone call, our reaction to a waiting period, no matter how brief and harmless, is a disproportionate bitterness. This outright intolerance is a principal source of a new, pervasive form of noise pollution: a seething inner tension with potentially fatal physical and mental health consequences.

Right on target are the science fiction writers who for decades have woven cautionary tales of a future in which machinery enslaves humanity. Their prophecies have been inaccurate in one minor respect: the creations-turned-monsters are mindless gadgets, not astute androids or holograms. For now at least.

The crux of our communication mania is that we just won't allow other people and higher forces their chance to maneuver. We won't relinquish our proven false sense of all-powerfulness, and accept that we can't know everything and that often enough our up-to-the-minute knowledge can't affect outcomes, but "only" can be used to make adjustments to our viewpoint. And so, we worry, worry, worry, whipping out cell phones while treading busy intersections or driving on tricky stretches of road, with the next call providing as much inner peace as the "last" coin inserted into a slot machine by a compulsive gambler.

Of course, we could survive without cell phones, beepers, and the like - physically; we did so for eons. Psychologically, perhaps we cannot, since our desire to always stay on top of things is an ever-deepening obsession - or something just as deadly: a global disease in which we grow in alienation from some of the very conditions that spawn and nurture sanity: privacy, solitude, quiet.

John Dallas is founder of the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet. You can write to him in care of: Norwood News, 75 E. 208th St., Bronx, NY 10467.

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