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Phone Calls as Public Experiences
and Other Contrary Thoughts on Wireless Technologies

by Stephanie Sides

I first started thinking about this issue a few years ago when I was sitting in the San Diego airport waiting to board a flight to Florida to visit my father. Several – and I do mean several – seats down the way a woman was talking on her cell phone about the results of her mammogram.

Now I, as I’m sure all within earshot, hoped she had a good outcome (frankly, I don’t remember), but I was offended by having unsolicited information of such a personal nature foisted on me. I suppose I could have moved to avoid overhearing the details, but was that my responsibility or should she have found a more private location and kept her voice down? After all, she was the actor in the situation.

Neither option apparently occurred to her. I sat still in horror: Did she realize what she was sharing and how that made her look?

Or should I have felt empathy for her need to deal with something that may have been troubling her by the only means available in that situation?

This is indeed a slippery slope.

Back during my parents’ early days, phone calls used to take place by way of a party line and, in fact, were available as public experiences, though those that listened in tried to hide what they were doing and were shunned as busybodies and gossips.

Then, as the technology improved, phone calls became private affairs.

Now it seems we’ve come full circle: Every person with a cell phone can air all of his/her laundry, dirty and otherwise, with anyone within hearing distance.

And not only do people not try to keep their voice low, some, particularly in airports (what is it about those places?), seem to deliberately try to attract attention by speaking more loudly than one typically would.

Is this a way of beating your chest and showing the world how important you are? If that’s the way to feel important, our world is one sorry place. There must be a more socially desirable reward system.

I think it may also be a generational thing. Those of us of a certain age are more inclined to find a less public arena for our phone calls. Either that, or I won’t make the phone call at all, even if the topic can be dispatched with pretty quickly. I just don’t want others hearing me. That’s the choice I feel most comfortable with.

The younger ones don’t seem to have that same sensibility about privacy. I guess it’s related to their incessant use of cell phones for calling, text messaging, accessing the Internet, watching videos, etc. It seems like a compulsion to me, and when you’re compulsive about something, you rarely notice, much less care, about the needs of others. And, if you consider compulsion a formal medical condition, then perhaps such people are unable to care, much less modify their compulsive behavior…

Another word for compulsion, of course, is addiction. Blackberries, for example, that support e-mail and web access in addition to phone calling, seem to be particularly addictive. I know people who freak out when they lose them. And they actively resist going on vacation, particularly to “non-connected places” like remote tropical islands, because they can’t deal with the prospect of being out of the loop (though it’s only a matter of time before every place on the planet becomes connected; I even know people who are actively planning for intergalactic connectivity – I’m not making this up!). I think they’re worried they might discover they’re not that indispensable, and who wants to find that out?

Does this growing lack of privacy have anything to do with increasing aggression in the world? After all, cell phone behavior smacks of a certain aggression: The implicit attitude is that I’m going to get in your space with my “stuff” and annoy you with the blather I talk about and the noise I make. I don’t care how it affects you. And there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it.

Do handheld devices compensate for declining privacy by allowing people to act out in what some might consider socially acceptable ways?

Younger people also seem to have a different sensibility about courtesy. In our dog-eat-dog world, it’s all about No. 1 and implicitly to hell with anyone else, especially people you don’t know. After all, how many times have you been engaged in a person-to-person conversation (it’s telling that I have to phrase it that explicitly) when the other person’s cell phone rings and s/he decides to answer it (indicating it’s more important) rather than finishing the conversation with you? (Call-waiting on land lines set a very bad precedent for this.)

Handheld technologies (and I would include wirelessly enabled laptops in this category) also focus on “digitally mediated communication” at the expense of what I would call “personal communication.” For years, I’ve attended meetings mostly with computer science types and nearly exclusively with men, and they all spend more time interacting with their devices than listening and contributing to the in-person discussion at hand.

It may seem to be all about communicating, but these people don’t even talk to their office mates next door. So it’s about communicating in a certain way.

Do these devices provide a safer way to communicate? After all computer scientists are known to be something of a self-selecting community: The theory goes that they chose this field so they wouldn’t have to interact with people – at least not face to face.

I wonder why they come to meetings if they’re choosing not to be intellectually present, and why people like me don’t speak up and suggest they all put their toys away? Sadly, I believe that it’s the latter that’s socially unacceptable.

So will technology continue to intrude on our “private space”? My last boss, who has long experience studying technology and its social effects, says privacy is a thing of the past and anyone that thinks s/he has any privacy at all is delusional. So what’s yours is mine, unless I make a concerted effort not to partake. But will mine ultimately become yours, even if I don’t want to share?

And what about these bionic types with earphones or headsets that enable them to use their cell phones hands-free? When I would see them wandering the streets, my first inclination was to think they’re talking to me so I would say “pardon me?” Without a response, which was typical, I would walk off thinking they are clinically crazy. Now, however, I've become way too used to this.

When I was young, my generation’s mantra was “don’t trust anyone over 30.” (That of course went by the wayside long ago.) Then it was “don’t trust anyone who can’t program his/her VCR.” (Mercifully VCRs, like most technology, have became easier to use. And then we graduated to DVD players.) Maybe now it’s “don’t trust anyone who can’t program his/her cell phone.”

While I can do that, it makes me feel more sympathetic than ever with my father. He just recently consented to his first answering machine. But it features my oldest sister’s voice because of course he can’t program it.