If you have ears, prepare to dread them now.
The telephone, more commonly known as "the *& **! phone" and long the principal menace to intelligent life on this planet, is making its most nefarious assault yet on the human psyche: long-range strike capability.
As if the nation's 200 million existing units hadn't already made modern America a jangling bedlam of aural shock and ruptured privacy, the recent debut of pay-phone service on commercial airliners, the sudden explosion of cellular phones -- tote your own or bolt it in the car -- as well as the cacophonous ubiquity of beepers and the new gimcrack spew of other talk-tech appliances may be ringing in the end of civilization as we know it.
This mania for mobile palaver not only threatens what few opportunities for quiet meditation remain in our speed-frenzied culture. It is likely to turn our now amply gore-beslathered highways into asphalt abattoirs. It imperils many of our most venerable social practices -- including the indispensable National Excuse and Subterfuge System. And it approaches, in the scope of its neuropathic calamity, the invention of the sitcom, the rise of disco and the birth of Joan Rivers.
Yet now it's too late. One local cellular phone vendor even touts a "horn alert to warn you of calls when you're away from the car." You can run, but you can't hide: On the street or on the lam, in the air or out to lunch, Bell tolls for thee.
The problem is as plain as the nose on your interface -- the ingenuous side of Yankee ingenuity. In the rush to build a communications network, we became intoxicated with the power to reach out and touch someone. (A caller's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a WATS line for?) But we forgot the converse, that someone can also touch us, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell's primordial mistake. He said, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you" -- and then hung up. If only Watson had jumped in ("Say, Al, as long as I've got you on the line, about that raise . . ."), Bell might have seen the folly of his design and gone into aluminum siding.
Instead, we've ceded control of our lives to a device that gives your most loathsome relative, your most sinister enemy, the merest stranger or misdialing cretin the power to invade your private time anywhere, 24 hours a day, and to do it with a spine-splintering rattle that cannot be ignored. Cellular phones only compound their power:
Say you're out there where the rubber meets the road, slewing into the passing lane on the Jersey Pike, headed for that Vermont vacation, when abruptly your car phone rings. "Hello -- Mr. Benson? This is Wally Dewlap of Perpetual Inevitable Insurance. I'm in the green sedan about six cars back, and I was just noticing that your right tire is pretty worn. And wondering if your policies are up to date. You know, even as we speak, you and your beloved family members may be hurtling toward a high-test doom that will leave the lucky ones dead and the remainder mutilated past recognition. Will your present insurance cover the cost of this virtually inescapable carnage? . . ." Things to Come
An improbable scenario? Hardly. There are 7,000 cellular phones operating in Fed City alone -- ideal "for people who live their lives in over-drive," says the printed pitch for Cellular One, which along with Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems provides cellular service in the Washington-Baltimore area and elsewhere. And the market outlook is more bullish than George Bush at a Jaycee weenie roast: An estimated 1,000 percent increase in Washington within the next five years, and some 10 million subscribers nationally by 1990.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone service, awards two licenses to operate competing cellular systems for each metropolitan area. In the past two years, applications have increased "almost geometrically," says Myron Peck, deputy chief of the FCC's mobile services division. About two years ago, when the FCC opened the nation's largest cities to applications, there were fewer than 200 applicants for the top 30 metropolitan areas, Peck says; this year, by the time the process had reached areas ranked 91-120 (e.g., Little Rock, Utica, Des Moines), there were 5,200. And the FCC plans to issue licenses for markets all the way down to No. 305.
Similarly, the scramble for novelty versions of conventional phone hardware proceeds at the rate of some 3,000 applications for FCC approval every year from 1,000 manufacturers -- 70 percent of them foreign. According to another FCC official, the spate includes "all kinds of oddball, Mickey Mouse things -- people who want to put phones in gumball machines and ketchup bottles. It boggles your mind."
Not to mention more plausible doodads for cordless calling, remote meter-reading by phone, call-screening devices which will ring only when the caller enters a secret code number, and teletext communication by video monitor. But forget about videophones for a while: "The bandwidth requirement [for a TV picture] is fantastic," says the FCC official, "and you can't pump that into telephone lines," though empty cable-TV channels might do the job. The phone of the future, he predicts, "will probably be a marriage between voice and data." (Just like Carl Sagan!)
No wonder General Motors' Buick division is trying to stuff IBM-compatible personal computers into the dashboards of prototype 1988 Rivieras. "If this product links a cellular phone . . . and a PC on someone's desk back at the office, then you're offering some real functionality," a Buick exec told PC Week magazine.
All of which conveniently ignores the fact that the supremest achievements of the human mind have transpired in tranquility. Consider Isaac Newton: Couched in silent repose under a tree, it is said, he discerned a cosmic law in the soft fall of an apple. But had a hand-carried cellular phone intruded on his fruity musings ("Listen, Ikey -- just don't forget to pick up a loaf of rye and a quart of ale, okay, or you're gonna be sleeping in the lab again"), the mighty march of science might have stumbled to a halt. Reaching Out -- and Up
Instead, it galloped, until by the early '80s practically the only ways a person could evade telephonic pursuit were by having open-heart surgery, scuba diving in a Third World country or taking a plane. The last possibility disappeared on Oct. 15, when several airlines began offering in-flight pay-phone service. The gab-famished traveler now simply inserts his credit card in one of four wall units, picks up the cordless handset and dials. The signal is transmitted at 900 MHz from antennae on the belly of the aircraft to one of 37 ground receiving stations, where it is patched into the regular phone system.
At five miles high, talk is not cheap: $7.50 for the first three minutes and $1.25 for each minute thereafter. But Airfone Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill. -- purveyor of the system to nine carriers so far -- is so sure the idea will fly that it intends to hawk individual units enabling passengers to make calls right from their seats. And surface-to-air calls will be possible very soon.
Thus eliminating, at a single high-tech swipe, that last and most reassuringly irrefutable item in the repertory of popular excuses: "Sorry, but I just couldn't call you -- we were stuck circling O'Hare for almost three hours." A long-suffering and suspicious spouse might be skeptical -- but how to disprove it? Until the mobile phone revolution.
Woe now to peccant wives who could once claim to be en route to the Safeway while secretly nuzzling the milkman; woe, too, to philandering husbands prone to drive-time trysts; to goldbricking employes out behind the warehouse. Even to lubricious teens parking in Lovers' Lane! (Braanngg. Braanngg. "Oh, golly, Eddie, I just know it's my mom!")
Woe, indeed, to us all when the gizmos become cheap and universal -- as they likely will, following the price paradigm of hand calculators and personal computers. For who, then, will dare to drive? In the Cockpit
Perhaps only those "hard-driving executives" who want to "shift appointments as easily as they shift gears," as Cellular One puts it in its brochures. Given the annual cadaver tally on America's thoroughfares, one may question the need for yet another in-car distraction. But then, the handset is mounted firmly for easy in-console dialing so that, in theory, you only need one hand to handle a whopper of a client. Or get a speaker box and use "both hands for other things . . . a great convenience when working with charts, maps, blueprints and large diagrams." Then add in call-waiting and call-forwarding services, conference calling to "turn the Beltway into a boardroom" and a portable computer linkup to "send or receive data while you're on the road."
Which is all very well for Chuck Yeager or Sally Ride. But how is a fella who can barely control both his temper and his land-yacht, whose blood pressure is spiking around 250 because he's missed seeing his mistress in Pittsburgh and just lost a big sale to that jackass from MonsterDyne, who's stuck in a 10-mile turnpike crawl -- how's this specimen going to react when his jerk of a neighbor calls to tell him, gloatingly, that his garage roof just fell in? With a potential for vehicular mayhem that makes Ivan the Terrible look like Bambi.
And thanks to the miracle of "roaming agreements" (cellular system reciprocity rights), a user of Alex, Atlantic Bell's service, for example, can mangle his metal at convenient locations from Long Island to Motown, from Florida to the Connecticut Turnpike.
Worse yet, "technology seers are predicting that computers and telephones one day will become indistinguishable," according to InfoWorld, the influential personal computer news weekly. One reason: the miracle of "voice mail," the system whereby human speech is digitized and stored for computer transmission and retrieval. Though it is barely in use now, according to research reports, voice mail will be a $2.3-billion market within three years, and more than two dozen companies are now scrambling for a piece of the action.
The system can be employed to exchange messages between individuals, to "broadcast" a message to multiple users, even to reply automatically to incoming voice-mail transmissions. (Thus raising the lunatic prospect of one guy's recording talking to another guy's recording.) Or the binary chatter can be hooked to an auto-dialer, producing the kind of robo-huckster solicitations that are becoming increasingly frequent in the Silicon Decade. It's bad enough when some digital drummer catches you at home. But on the pike?
For example, you're heading in to Terre Haute, struggling to unfold the map, pilot the Olds and decide which of four customers to hit first. Suddenly your phone rings, and a voice thick as a pork belly intones, "Brother, are you steering the straight and narrow? Or do you find yourself straying from the path? This is the Rev. Titus Lugnut from the Little Roadside Chapel of the Everlasting Wheel Alignment asking for a moment of your sinful time. . . ."
Such dialing for dollars may be the electromagnetic wave of the future. When It Rings
And by all available evidence, we'll keep riding. Despite the fact that the phone robs communication of its invaluable physical cues, nuance of body language and visual context. And despite what might seem a behavioral anomaly: Put any house cat, chimp, gerbil or other Higher Mammal next to a telephone, and when it rings that creature will recoil in dread. A thoroughly sensible reaction. But one that is shared, says Allan M. Leventhal of the Washington Psychological Center, by only a very few humans -- typically those suffering from anxiety over speech impediments or who have phobias about social contact, rejection or anticipation of panic.
More common is the experience of one local host who tries to enforce a firm house rule against answering the telephone during dinner parties. "But it never works! Invariably, there's some guest who can't stand it any more and jumps up after the fourth or fifth ring." Isn't such attraction to patently negative reinforcement a paradoxical perversity? "No," says Barry Wolfe, assistant chief of the psycho-social treatments research branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, "because it's not always negative reinforcement." Sometimes it's good news ("Mom, we won the lottery"), and as B.F. Skinner and others have demonstrated, Wolfe explains, "it's intermittent reinforcement that maintains a behavior pattern better than anything else."
Phone aversion, he says, "is rarely reported -- you don't see it much in the literature." And yet he has an intuition that it may be more widespread than we know. "I've had a mild one myself, and I've talked to several people who have it bad." No national trend, of course. But put it this way: "My life has changed materially since I got an answering machine."