Respond to this Article November 2000

Reach Out And Annoy Someone

When public space turns private,
we're all stuck listening to the noise

By Jonathan Rowe

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. six-figure public relations gigs.

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?

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly..


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