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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 00:00

Stay out of my space with the cell phone

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By Angela Faye Martin

Presently, I am stalking though my local library collecting my thoughts on what I will write about in my next column when, wham! Someone across the room is getting a call on their cell phone.

I look around to observe the reaction of patrons and notice they vary between poker-faced and outright scowls. Cell phones are everywhere now, even in libraries and, by the way, are threatening an end to place. Occasionally, they claim lives when used by overconfident motorists, but in this column I’m exploring the slow-burning damage done to our culture by their abuse.

Let me say it plainly: cell phones are changing the characteristics of public space for the worse. Not to mention the civility issue of cell phones as proverbial elephants in the living room. At most, I consider them luxury items like electric blankets or Cadillacs. To be fair, this notion has its variables.

One such variable depends on whether you are beholden to an institution that deems cell phones necessary. By this I mean the workplace. Is it just me, or have people stopped calling one another at their jobs? I mean on the company landline. They’re used to my getting calls now, here at the library, but it seemed to take months to accustom my new co-workers to my receiving personal calls via one of the building’s main telephone lines. It seemed as though I was engaged in behavior that was out of whack or just kind of old-timey.

Further ponderance led me to the realization that I was simply unconscious of the new and unspoken more more that it is downright passé these days to take calls at work except on the sly and, of course, on your own cell phone. Imagine my puzzlement as a new part-time employee when they said that for two -dozen or so employees, there would only be three landlines for the entire building. Is this possible and at a reduced price thanks to cell phones?

One of my main loves is philosophy, but I’m afraid that we’re short on deep thinkers today and that all the deep thinking we might benefit from is getting interrupted by cell phone calls and ITM’s (instant text messages). I’m lonely for the philosophers, the thinkers. You remember, the ones who could string two or more thoughts together at once. The ones who could talk with you without having to look down to see who’s ringing or buzzing while the knuckle of their thumb grows to the width of their elbow.

What does Jack White, the songwriter of the album Get Behind Me Satan, say? I hear him singing, “I’m lonely but I ain’t that lonely yet.” That’s me, I’m lonely but not lonely enough to stay glued to a cell phone. I’m not saying I won’t use one ever. Never say never. I’m just discussing when, where and at what volume they are used.


A cultural shift

A great shift is occurring in our culture, and I’m not even sure it’s fully documented. There is the place you are in, and then there is the space you occupy in that place, right? I’m asserting that the place is being redefined both figuratively and audibly. (Don’t take that call, stay with me.) I’m saying we are allowing a fundamental shift to occur in the definition of the space surrounding us, and we are only beginning to get this as a people.

The nature of communicating with someone immediately and who is in another place requires the mind to at least, in part, disengage from its concern with its current surroundings. This is a place, your current surroundings, otherwise known as: The Present. Staying within reach, at all possible times, is just plain umbilical on any level. And people who are abusing ambient space with their cell phone usage are acting out of a fear of being alone or a partial refusal to live in the present.

Is this a perceived need to communicate inane thoughts and responses to another person with the same perceived need? Look up “alone.” There’s very little pathological about it. Not my business? Perhaps, but I am hearing every single simpering word of this not-my-business from the person next to me, suddenly registering in at an inordinate volume. I’m thinking now of a Wendell Berry poem where he says there are only sacred places and desecrated places. I consider people who abuse cell phones as unable to see the value of their surroundings — at least not without their most audible narcissistic concerns superimposed on our mutual space.


Triviality defined

Then, there are the unplanned and inane cell phone abuses by people who answer and engage in cell phone use in public spaces or at the dinner tables. I have only to mention the scenario. You’ve seen it played out over and over if you’ve left your house at all since the turn of the millennia. There’s a person in the public space you are occupying with several others, and you are hearing in the most intimate detail the trivialities of their daily round. These are undulating, vaguely topical chats consisting of what they are having for supper, what to buy and how fast or slow traffic moved on their way home.

Among the worst conversations oft endured are the whiney ripples of lukewarm discipline passed from parent to child in public, or worse, the negotiations from child to parent. After all, all that a cell phone ultimately does in its role as a haggling babysitter is to assure the parent that the child is indeed alive, unless the child is outfitted with geographic positioning capability. A prison anklet would be more accurate.

Very few establishments are bucking cell phone use in public because the user is a nonpareil, a conduit of commerce and potential patronage to the institution. Such individuals might affect the Dow Jones average by discussing something as urgent as, “Honey, which width of ham slice should I buy?” at the local supermarket while they run over my toe with their shopping cart. As for myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that I will use a cell phone under the same auspices as I would have in the days of public pay phones. For instance, I never sought a pay phone to discuss what width of sliced bread to buy.


It’s not just your space

This inquest explores whether a redefining of public space is a privilege we’ve evolved to or not. To me it’s like nuclear capability in that we as a species haven’t cultivated the morality that should accompany such capability. We have only begun to calculate the slow burn, the loss of humanity that is the result of boorish etiquette employed by the cell phone using public, my sore toe not withstanding. What Oscar Wilde said of America rings way too true. Wilde said that America was a country that had gone straight from barbarism to decadence without ever bothering to create a civilization.

I was recently in San Francisco where people use their cell phone elbows as curb-feelers and as nudging devices for keeping other pedestrians at a distance. This included all the disconcerting bumpkin moments I suffered when I thought someone was actually talking to me, or was a lost schizophrenic, when it was actually a techno-goiter on the side of their head they were speaking to.

Then there was the revenge I enacted in a public restroom where a woman was arguing with her boyfriend on her cell phone, of course. This was the last place I wanted to experience hearing a violent tone of voice, you might say, so I overstepped my usual frugality with water and flushed the toilet at strategic points during the ordeal, happily impairing her reverberating yelling match.

But a most intriguing scene is one a friend related to me recently about a man sitting in an airport lobby reading a book. A person next to this man begins blabbing on his cell phone in the next seat over. Understandably frustrated that his audible space is invaded, he begins reading his book just as loud as the phone-man was talking, yes, and rendering the cell phone conversation, well, difficult. The man with the book is my nonpareil.

(Angela Faye Martin is a musician and writer living in Franklin. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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