Cellphones: Social goods or a sign of the end of times?

April 22, 2008

I point our attention to a new book by Rich Ling, New Tech, New Ties from MIT Press, which, among other questions, asks whether cellphones in the aggregate are a good thing for society or a device whose use detracts from the social good, from social cohesion, from civility and our notions of social etiquette.

As you all know, I do not own a cellphone, mainly because I enjoy the option of being an island, untethered to the social mainland when I choose. Just today, I had lunch with someone for whom our face-to-face conversation in my office at his request at times seemed like an interruption of his cellphone “life,” or seemingly continuous series of calls taken without exception. Most of these calls were of fairly long duration (several minutes). It felt functionally as if I were but one channel on his remote that he every few minutes would land on before hitting channel up or down to attend to something else, another phone call, another cry of the urgent over the demands of the important.

The overheard conversations of others in public places, conversations about in-laws, recent doctor’s visits or the even more mundane and, therefore, uninteresting, to me are unwelcome societal noise, social pollution. This blurring or blending of public and private spaces has been harmful in my view, at least for society at large (and me in particular).

Ling’s take is very different; he sees cellphones as in the aggregate contributing to social cohesion, at least among small groups of circles of friend — cliques. I’ll buy that, but at the expense of the overall noise pollution level and breakdown of civic etiquette. How many times walking across this beautiful campus, passing students between buildings, are we who are available for a “Hello!” or “How’s it going?” outnumbered by cellphoners, isolated and unavailable. In other words, these noisy, ubiquitous brain cancer-causing things help some people some of the time, but at a cost to the larger tribe.

In short, I don’t want to hear what someone is doing this weekend, or what he did this morning, or that he hates his job, or whatever, particularly while I am urinating in a public restroom or waiting in line at the coffee shop. What happened to solitude? To quiet? To privacy? One book reviewer calls these inane conversations we have to hear, that we have no choice in experiencing short of stuffing in ear plugs, “colonial raids on the public space.” I like that. It is the tension between “the clique and the broader group,” in Ling’s description. (My biggest pet peeve: Waiting on a train platform or in an airport lobby and being forced to listen to someone else close by tell a caller, “I’m waiting on a train platform” or “I’m waiting for my flight” or “We just landed.” Calgon, take me away!)

My hero is a security guard at New York University last March. A young collegiate approached him to ask for information about a meeting in the building, while maintaining cellphone contact with a friend. “Not until you put up the phone,” the security guard said. “You talk to them or you talk to me. Your choice.” Then he turned to me, “How can I help you, sir?”