Cellphone Syndrome

Originally written when cellphones first appeared.  Don’t think I’d change a thing.

Has there been a more transparent advertisement of insecurity?

Look at me, I’m so popular!  Everyone’s calling me!  I have so many friends!  Answer that thing one more time when I’m with you, you’ll have one less.

Look at me, I’m so busy!  I have so many calls to make, so many calls to take!  What you have is a total inability to actually enjoy life.

Look at me, I’m so important!  Excuse me, I have to take this call!  No.  You don’t.  You are not a doctor on call.  You are not a top-level executive.  Neither your presence nor your opinion is urgently required.  Anywhere.  By anyone.

Frankly, it’s frightening.  Suddenly all these men are making calls on their cellphones while they’re driving.  Just yesterday they couldn’t even dial a phone while sitting at a desk, they had to get their secretaries to do it for them.

And of course it’s annoying as hell.  Just what makes people think the rest of the world wants to listen to every word of their unbearably inane conversations?  “Hey, Jen.  We’re at the Van Houtte on St. Laurent.  Yeah.  Just ordered.  No.  Not yet.  We’re waiting.  Coffee.”

Of course people have been having conversations in cafes and stores, and on sidewalks and buses, for quite some time.  It’s not an invasion of public space.  Unless the person TALKS LOUDLY ENOUGH EVERYONE CAN’T HELP BUT HEAR.  Then it’s an advertisement of the immaturity of overriding self-importance.

But that doesn’t explain why a person talking loudly on a cellphone in public is even more annoying than two people having a loud conversation in public.  Why is that?  I think it’s because in the case of the cellphone conversation, we hear only half of the conversation.  However annoying the whole conversation would be, half of it is even worse.  It’s like hearing only every second work in a sentence.  (Speaking of which, remember the early “ – ar ph – s”?)  This occurred to me when I heard someone speaking on a cellphone in a language I didn’t understand.  It wasn’t quite as bad.  I wasn’t engaged against my will in a frustrating half-comprehensible experience.

But what’s most worrisome about the widespread use of cellphones is that it indicates not progress, but regress.  We are, in fact, devolving.  Imagine, for a moment, what it would’ve been like to have been the first one in your cave to discover thought, the first one to hear words, inside your head.  It’s a neat and handy trick – not having to say out loud everything that occurs to you.  And one of the more valuable side-effects of being able to think is being able to evaluate – to deliberate, to compare, to measure.  (And to realize that not everything that occurs to you is worth saying out loud.)  But we’ve gone backwards – from “I think, therefore I am” to “I talk, therefore I am.”  (I wonder if cellphone users can read without moving their lips.)

Given the recent increase in attention deficit (what we used to call ‘a short attention span’) (usually in reference to children and other less advanced creatures), the cellphone phenomenon is not surprising: it takes a certain amount of attention or concentration to think – to focus on and follow that little voice inside your head.  It used to be that doing two things at once meant your ability to concentrate was so good, you could divide your attention.  Now it means that your ability to concentrate is so bad, you can’t pay attention to any one thing for more than ten seconds.

(Either that or you don’t care enough to pay attention to anything or anyone for more than ten seconds.)

And maybe cellphones wouldn’t have become the annoyance they are if everyone hadn’t ditched their landline phones.  Because now the ONLY place you can have a phone conversation is OUTSIDE.  Wherever the signal is good.  Whether that happens to be outside someone’s bedroom window or one foot away from a stranger waiting for a bus, well, no matter.  Your conversation takes priority.  To everything and everyone.  Apparently.

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