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Robert Samuelson

Staying Out Of Cell Hell

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page A19

Someday soon I may be the last man in the United States without a cell phone. To those who see cell phones as progress, I say: They aggravate noise pollution and threaten our solitude. The central idea of cell phones is that you should be connected to almost everyone and everything at all times. The trouble is that cell phones assault your peace of mind no matter what you do. If you turn them off, why have one? You just irritate anyone who might call. If they're on and no one calls, you're irrelevant, unloved or both. If everyone calls, you're a basket case.

I'm a dropout and aim to stay that way. I admit this will be increasingly difficult, because cell phones are now passing a historic milestone. As with other triumphs of the mass market, they've reached a point where people forget what it was like before they existed. No one remembers life before cars, TVs, air conditioners, jets, credit cards, microwave ovens and ATM cards. So, too, now with cell phones. Anyone without one will soon be classified as a crank or a member of the underclass.

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Attorney Generals' Hot Air (The Washington Post, Aug 11, 2004)
Marketing Revolution In Politics (The Washington Post, Aug 3, 2004)
Pressure of the American Dream (The Washington Post, Jul 26, 2004)
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Look at the numbers. In 1985 there were 340,213 cell phone users. By the end of 2003, there were 159 million. (These figures come from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, or CTIA.) I had once assumed that age, orneriness or hearing loss would immunize most of the over-60 population against cell phones. Wrong. Among those 60 to 69, cell phone ownership (60 percent) is almost as high as among 18- to 24-year-olds (66 percent), though lower than among 30- to 49-year-olds (76 percent), according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. Even among those 80 and older, ownership is 32 percent.

Of course, cell phones have productive uses. For those constantly on the road (salesmen, real estate agents, repair technicians, some managers and reporters), they're a godsend. The same is true for critical workers (doctors, oil rig firefighters) needed at a moment's notice. Otherwise, the benefits seem murky. They make driving more dangerous, though how much so is unclear. The Insurance Information Institute recently summarized some studies: The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis blamed cell phones for 6 percent of auto accidents each year, involving 2,600 deaths (but admitted that estimates are difficult); the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied videotapes of 70 drivers and concluded that cell phones are distracting, though less so than many other activities (say, stretching for an item in the glove compartment).

Then there's sheer nuisance. Private conversations have gone public. We've all been subjected to someone else's sales meeting, dinner reservation, family feud and dating problem. In 2003 cell phone conversations totaled 830 billion minutes, reckons the CTIA. That's about 75 times greater than in 1991 and almost 50 hours for every man, woman and child in the United States. How valuable is all this chitchat? The average conversation lasts 2 1/2 to three minutes. Surely many could be postponed or forgotten.

It's true that lots of people like to gab. Cell phones keep them company. Count that as a plus. But it's also true that lots of people dislike being bothered. These are folks who have cell phones but often wish they didn't. A recent poll, sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program, asked which invention people hated most but couldn't live without. Cell phones won, chosen by 30 percent of respondents.

Some benefits may be overstated. Cell phones for teens were sold as a way for parents to keep tabs on children. That works -- up to a point. The point is when your kids switch off the phones. Two of my teens have cell phones (that was Mom's idea; she has one, too). Whenever I want them most, their phones are off. Hmm. Similar advantages are claimed for older people. They have cell phones to allow their children to monitor their health. This may spawn gallows humor on voice-mail messages. (For example: "Hi, Sonny. If you get this, I'm dead.'') Cell phones -- and indeed all wireless devices -- constitute another chapter in the breakdown between work and everything else. They pretend to increase your freedom while actually stealing it. People are supposed to be always capable of participating in the next meeting, responding to their e-mails or retrieving factoids from the Internet. People so devoted to staying interconnected are kept in a perpetual state of anxiety, because they may have missed some significant memo, rendezvous, bit of news or gossip. They may be more plugged in and less thoughtful.

All this is the wave of the future or, more precisely, the present. According to another survey, two-thirds of Americans between the ages 16 and 29 would choose a cell phone over a traditional land line. Land lines have already dropped from 189.5 million in 1999 to 181.4 million at the end of 2003, says the Federal Communications Commission. Cell phones, an irresistible force, will soon pull ahead. But I vow to resist just as I've resisted ATM cards, laptops and digital cameras. I agree increasingly with the late poet Ogden Nash, who wrote: "Progress might have been all right once, but it's gone on too long."


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