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Friday, May 07, 2010


It is my heart-warmed and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.

—Mark Twain, Christmas greeting, 1890


While I doubt that you can cook an egg with the electromagnetic radiation of a cell phone (http://www.snopes.com/science/cookegg.asp), a physical tumor seems to be a possibility (http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ped/content/ped_1_3x_cellular_phones.asp), and if not a physical cancer, some sort of cancer of the soul.  It is this latter condition that concerns us here.


Cell phones are everywhere, and their numbers seem to be even higher in Europe.  I have stood among the multitudes at an intersection in the middle of Rome and found it difficult to find even a handful of people not talking on their cells.


The device has contributed mightily to the already tragic level of bad manners in this country.  Cell phone people ring you up just to alleviate the boredom of standing in line somewhere, or being caught in a traffic snarl.  They then twitter in your ear about whatever diddly thing they are doing.  Next, they cut you off abruptly when they finally have to tend to business.  Any nearby phone-head driver should immediately put one on alert—and frequently for good reason.  Once, while standing in line at a bank, I watched as a patron—babbling into a cell phone firmly jammed against his ear—carried out a five-minute transaction with the bank teller using hand-signals, apparently without once taking notice of her existence as a person.  She might as well have been an ATM.


To a certain degree, I am a technophobe.  I used to like to write letters—the old-fashioned kind—and have probably written ten to twenty thousand of them over my lifetime.


In the 1980s I could not resist getting a computer and accessing the web as an information source.  Business required it.  I did, however, refuse to correspond by e-mail for many years.  It seemed vulgar and offhand.


While I still wrote many pen-and-paper letters, I received fewer and fewer responses.  Finally, a long-suffering close friend sent me a note by snail mail stating, in effect, that she would no longer be continuing our correspondence unless I started using e-mail.  She of course explained in detail why, and I saw that she was right.  I was forced to change my ways.


In my book, the cell phone is more of a curse than computers, e-mail and the Internet.  I have a local friend who merrily uses a cell phone, but refuses to get on line.  I respect him for this, but there is also a line from the Bible that is applicable here: it has to do with straining at gnats and swallowing camels—the Internet being the former, and the cell phone the latter.


My wife and I flirted with using a cell phone back in the late 90s.  We got an expensive Verizon contract and tried to discipline ourselves to this new technology. 


We used cell phones a couple of times to coordinate shopping, and then quit using them all together.  Those devices are now exactly where they should be—disintegrating in an Hawaiian landfill.


There is a sinister side to cell phones—besides causing tumors and bad manners.  As I began writing this column, an article by Steve Chapman popped up on the screen, titled: “Big Brother on your Trail.”  It begins thusly:


 “Suppose I approached you with a request.  I want you to carry a small gadget that will automatically transmit your location to the police, allowing them to track your every move 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Chances are you would politely decline.

“Too late.  You already accepted.

“That gadget, you see, is called a cell phone.”

Cell phone monitoring came into government vogue under Bush, and the practice has been cheerfully continued under Obama.


Time for a confession.  My wife and I have recently purchased cell phones (again).  As with anyone who commits any other horrible and fairly indefensible act (such as, for example, voting for Obama), we quickly came up with excuses.  I don’t know if they are any good, but they make us feel a bit better. 


One excuse is that we can now largely eliminate telephone solicitations.  This counts big, and was perhaps the deciding factor.


The other excuse is that I dislike landline phones every bit as much as cell phones, so the issue was whether we would have a telephone at all.  Some years ago, in another connection, I wrote the following, which is spookily like the opening lines of the Chapman article cited above:


“I have invented a device, for universal distribution, which will give anyone access to you at almost any time of day or night.  This device will forcibly demand your attention, whether you are awake or not, in the shower, at dinner, or involved in more intimate activities.  The intrusive force of this device will be supported by a vast network of social possibilities and obligations as well as by your own fantasies and human needs.  This coercive force will be so strong that, in spite of your varying levels of irritation and annoyance, you will be compelled to obey this device’s summons.  I call this device— the ‘telephone.’”

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