Thursday, June 10, 2010

Of Cell Phones

An essay I wrote for school.  It's a little alarmist, but that is intentional.


The Destruction of the Common Good: Cell Phones and the Public

Our rampant and discourteous use of cell phones in public has gotten out of hand. In her essay, Our Cell Phones, Ourselves, Chrstine Rosen suggests that cell phones are like tobacco, and should be relegated to the realm of the private: “Perhaps one day we will exchange quiet cars for wireless cars, and the majority of public space will revert to the quietly disconnected.” (403). The use of cell phones in public, despite their utility and convenience, is an infringement of the common good as defined by J.H. Kunstler, which is tantamount to Rosen's argument that cell phones are eroding the public trust. Our inability (or refusal) to establish and follow guidelines of etiquette for this new technology has made it abundantly clear that we must take legislative steps to reduce or eliminate the use of cellular phones in public areas.

Rosen's argument against cell phones hinges on the idea that they are reducing the public trust. While cell phones encourage strong bonds with the people we already know, “....public trust among strangers in social settings is eroding” (402). Essentially, the use of cell phones in public is engendering a distrust of strangers in all of us, subconsciously or consciously. The root cause of this is simply the fact that a person on a cell phone has chosen to disengage from the public mentally while remaining physically – an implicit statement that they are better than what is happening around them.

At the same time that a cell phone conversationalist has disconnected from the public, he is yammering away about his upcoming vacation, or his most recent growth (financial or otherwise). He is projecting his own private life onto the public space around him; Rosen refers to this as “conversational panhandling” (399). Simply put, he is forcing his conversation on his peers without their explicit (or even implicit) acceptance. In his essay, The Public Realm and the Common Good, J.H. Kunstler introduces the idea that the public realm, all the bits of land and space between our privately owned buildings and plots, “is the physical manifestation of the common good.” (461). He is speaking in an architectural, zoning and planning sense, but he argues that these physical things have a major effect on the mentality of the public – it follows that abuses on the public realm with the same nature but different format, a mental one, would also have a major effect on the mentality of the public. When people carry out their cell phone conversations in public, they are eroding the atmosphere, the character, of the public space, making it uncomfortable for anyone to be there – thereby degrading the common good in the process.

This is the crux of this issue, the inherent flaw of cellular phones. They mentally force the user out of the public space while simultaneously forcing his conversation onto everyone around him. He is causing harm to the common good and is oblivious to this fact as a result of the basic mechanics of cell phone technology; the normal, subtle social cues that indicate when someone is being rude have no effect on someone who is totally unaware of what is going on around them. Furthermore, because the technology is relatively new, we have yet to come to a consensus on what the etiquette is for public cell phone use. We know that having loud conversations in public is rude, but again, because of the mental disconnect, we're never aware that we're doing it, and nobody knows how or even if they are supposed to inform us.

Etiquette is simply a more formalized version of courtesy, and courtesy keeps us sane – it is the lubricant that allows the machine of our society to function, and should not ever be considered optional. The lack of courtesy with public cell phone usage and its necessary disconnection from the public realm has further ramifications as well. Rosen suggests that “people who use cell phones seem to be acting more like the people in the asylum than the ones in respectable society” (398). You've no doubt seen this in person: a man, seemingly talking to himself or no-one at all, gesticulating wildly, staring through the ground. You may or may not see the Bluetooth earpiece he's wearing. Users of cell phones in public bear an uncanny resemblance to the mentally ill because both of them have disconnected from society. The only difference – as far as the objective observer is concerned – between the truly insane and a rude cell phone conversationalist is that one of them is outdoors. It has the effect of turning our public spaces into one huge asylum.

Kunstler claims that our attitude towards the public space has a major effect on public sanity. According to him, the proper sort of building “literally charms us in the direction of sanity and grace” (462). It follows that if the public space is full of people who are indistinguishable from the certifiably insane, the common good is degraded even more.

I was driving through suburbia recently, trying to find the home of a friend I'd never visited before. I had gotten lost and pulled over to check my phone for directions, when a man, presumably one who lived on the street I was using, came up to me and asked what I was doing there. The conversation that followed was truly surreal: in short, he suspected me of wrongdoing, of burglary, of vile deeds, simply because he didn't recognize me or my car. Here I was, a person who is utterly ordinary in every relevant sense, engaging in one of the most mundane things that it is possible to do in a vehicle: looking at a cell phone. How many other people are suspected of theft and assault only because they've never been met by their accusers? This is a truly harrowing state of affairs. The public trust has fallen to the point where people are afraid that even the most innocuous strangers might be ready to attack them and steal all their stuff at a moment's notice.

It has become necessary for us to regulate this issue through government. There is precedent for this; any time that a certain act or behavior becomes demonstrably unhealthy for the public, it has been forced into privacy. Tobacco is only the most recent and obvious example, with most states adopting laws banning its use in most public areas and pseudo-public areas, like bars and most other businesses. Alcohol consumption isn't allowed in public spaces, either. By allowing this flagrant disregard for the public space to continue, we have fundamentally lapsed in our standards for social behavior, resulting in an unfair, undeserved, and unwarranted fear of strangers.
That's all for now.