Do you know where your cell phone is? Do you ever not know?
The way we use computer technology has changed immensely over the last two decades. By virtue of computer advancement we have also changed the way we use telephones and the way we think about telephones.
Just what are our attitudes regarding cell phones?
As we learn to take technology for granted in our daily lives, we forget the way things used to be. There is a mad rush ahead. We live on the cutting edge, cut off from the recent past by a series of technological innovations.
One result of the rapid changes in the telephone is a confusion over the rules – when to use a phone and when not to use a phone.
Safety has been an issue. Cell phones have been banned for use by drivers of automobiles in several states including New York, New Jersey, and California. Texting – a relatively new application of the cell phone – has also been prohibited for drivers.
This makes practical sense.
As much as we would like to think of ourselves as “multi-taskers”, there are only so many actions the brain can successfully engage in at one time. Driving already tests the limits of concentration. Watching the other cars on the road, looking out for squirrels and potholes, a driver is challenged to make it from point A to point B in one piece.
Add cell phones and texting into the mix and the combination is potentially lethal.
Beyond these few rules for safety, we have very few cell phone regulations. Airplanes, libraries, courtrooms and movie theaters put limits on cell phone use. In the case of libraries, courtrooms and movie theaters, the cell phone restrictions are really rules of etiquette. The social code of each institution calls for quiet.
If there is a breach in the code of conduct and someone’s phone goes off during, say, the reading of a verdict or a tense monologue in a film, everyone’s experience suffers.
These are public venues where the chirps and blares of cell phones are not meant to penetrate.
What do these three institutions have in common? The courtroom and the library serve very different purposes, as does the movie theater.
Importantly, each of these facilities is public. The nature of the activity at each place is completely public, open, and meant for collective use.
When you bring your private life (in the form of a cell phone call) into one of these public places you are usurping the common-use rights of everyone else sharing that space.
Of course, before there were cell phones, our telephone calls were automatically private. Our calls took place in our homes or in our offices. The option of spilling the beans about your divorce while standing in line for coffee was purely imaginary.
Phones now sit in our pockets and in our purses. We carry them into public places routinely. The wall between public and private space has been blurred.
The value of cellular telephones comes in their convenience and portability. This value is virtually undeniable. Denying their positive traits would be foolish. These little computers, these tiny machines, are fun too.
But somewhere along the line they took over our minds.
We do their bidding. The phone chirps and we respond. If we were Pavlov’s dogs, we’d be drooling an ocean of saliva for every text message received. The attention we pay to the communication tool/toy we call our cell phone outpaces the gratification we get from it.
There is a remote possibility that the cell phone has altered the social fabric. We may be more interconnected, on a creature level, than we used to be. The desire to be semi-constantly connected, however tenuously, to others via technology may be a biological one.
However, as an old-school human I refuse to consider the abstract chirps of my phone as more important than the real voices of real people in the room.
As a first step in cell phone etiquette, the decision has already been made to keep phones quiet in definitively public spaces. The next step, it seems, is to decide where to draw the line between public and private.
Perhaps this is an unimportant distinction in an unimportant conversation. Our attitudes toward phone use have changed with every iteration of telephone technology. If they will continue to change, then what is the use of talking about where we are now? Tomorrow will be different no matter what we say today.
A long time ago we used to run to answer the phone because it might be the only call we would get in a week. Then phone calls became more common – so common in fact that the “answering machine” was invented.
“Let the machine get it” became a popular phrase.
When cell phones came around we got excited about phone calls again. Every time my phone rings I know it is for me; every single time. For a while, the notion of the permanently private line carried around in our pocket was vastly exciting.
The “guess where I am” conversation was imagined, at least, by everyone with a cell phone because suddenly, in the new millennium, we were able to make a phone call from a roller coaster, from a tree house, from continent to continent, with no strings or wires.
Then the wonder began to wear off. With the wonder went the awareness. We began to feel less conspicuous on the cell phone.
We began to live out the assumption that we can be on the phone no matter what we were doing.
Instead of calling from the branches of a tree we had climbed, in a fit of glee at the prospect, we answer the phone in mid-climb and don’t bother to mention where we are or what we are doing. The wonder is gone.
There is no bringing the wonder back.
Maybe though, we can resume the awareness of being on the phone and having “private conversations”. We can rid ourselves of the assumption that all spaces are private unless otherwise designated. We can disabuse ourselves of the notion that phone calls make us important, that we should always answer no matter where we are or what we are doing.
Maybe we can bring back the freedom of the greatest phone-related attitude yet – let the machine get it.