When I ask my students to write about something that irritates them, the
number one topic is cell phones. I don't have one, myself. What I know about
them is that they work badly, cause an amazing lack of privacy in what used
to be shared public space, and everyone from suburban pre-teens to drug dealers
to movie stars uses them. I grant you they're convenient when the battery's
charged, the signal is in range, the static not too loud, and you haven't
just crashed your car into the side of somebody's house while reaching for
the insistent little tune coming from the bottom of your purse.
I don't generally want a cell phone, but I've noticed an interesting phenomenon with new inventions. Once they're invented, and you get used to the possibilities they open up, it's sometimes hard to be without them.
I was once a happy user of pay phones. I had memorized my phone card number, and if I got stuck somewhere or felt lonely I just hopped into that little glass oasis and called one of my friends, no problem. Then cell phones invaded the planet. Now, if I'm going to be late, there isn't a working pay phone within miles. And because I know it could be possible to call from stalled traffic to explain myself, I feel worse about not doing it, as though I'm doubly at fault.
This is an insidious side-effect of innovation. People who got along fine without something are pushed by its new normalcy into using it. It isn't really peer pressure that does it, it's the pressure of the innovation itself. I mean, once you know you can get from San Francisco to Boston in six hours by plane, doesn't the three-day train trip look a little inconvenient, maybe even eccentric? Even if you hate airplanes and have the time.
The link between airplanes and cell phones, of course, is speed, which is worshipped as a god in this country. Cell phones are in your pocket wherever you go, while home phones are back in the kitchen. By not using a cell phone, I have to wait a little longer between thinking I ought to call someone and actually driving home, unloading the groceries, and dialing. This is OK with me. I happen to believe delayed gratification is good for people, and it's especially good for me: any chance to stop and think before I take an action can only improve my character. I hope you'll forgive me in advance for not being always on the end of the line when you want me.
I've noticed another change the cell phone has brought us. Now, when we reach someone, instead of asking "how are you?" we ask "where are you?" I don't know what this will mean for the culture over the long term maybe an improvement in spaTial awareness and geography, maybe a decline in intimacy.
It's possible I might break down in a few years and buy one of these newfangled gizmos. If you call me up, I know exactly what I'll say. "Where am I? I'm in central Nebraska, heading east on the California Zephyr."