Friday, February 27, 2015

Cell Phone Etiquette

Cell phones are wonderful things.  Sadly, they have caused a lot of difficulty in personal relations.

I got my first cellular telephone back in 1989.   The cost of a "car phone" including installation, had dropped from $1200 to about $600 and Bell South (as I recall) had a plan for "only" $29.95 per month which gave me 100 minutes per month, but unlimited minutes after 7:00 PM and on weekends.   This was the old analog system, and the phone was installed in the car and had a 4.5 Watt transceiver.

Being a young 20-something and wanting all the toys, I didn't think about the long-term cost to my net worth, or the logic of putting a $600 phone in a $10,000 car - or adding $29.95 to my monthly expenses.  I was young and wanted all the new toys, and the perceived status that came with them.  I had a shiny used Camry with a car phone - I was a young law student going places!

Of course, where I was going was in circles.  But it would take another 25 years to figure that out.

Almost immediately, once these "Car phones" became popular, the issue of driving and talking came to the forefront.  I realized quite quickly that talking on the phone and driving was something entirely different than carrying on a conversation and driving, or listening to the radio and driving.   Why this is, I do not know, but for some reason, you really have to concentrate when talking on a phone, and it does distract you.

I remember calling my Dad from my car phone, as I was so proud that I had "made it."  Of course, like any older generation, he said, "What the hell do you need a car phone for, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard of!"

A few years later, he got his first "cell phone" (handheld) and he did the same thing - called everyone he knew, impressed by the modern miracle of portable telephony.   And he did this from a crowded restaurant, shouting into the phone (cell phone holler - there is a technical explanation for it) and annoying the snot out of everyone within earshot.

Since then, phones have become more sophisticated, and human behavior has deteriorated further, with each new innovation.

With the hand-held cell phone (remember the old "flip phones?") you could take a call anywhere - and people did, often hollering into their phones while people sat or stood around them.  It was annoying as snot.

Compulsive cell-phoning was next.  People who never hung up their phones from dawn to dusk.  With "unlimited" minutes plans, you could do this.  I still remember back in the early 2000's, the cashiers at Wal-Mart, with a phone cradled in their ear, never making eye contact or talking to their customers, carrying on a conversation with someone else for hours at a time.  It was freaky.  What the heck were they talking about?

Bluetooth headsets came next.  People started walking around with these Star Trek appendages attached to their ears, acting like schizophrenic folks, apparently talking to themselves.  They would walk right up to you, yakking away and when you responded to them, they would get angry and say, "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"

Texting was next.  It was originally a free service, as it just used unused side-channel bandwidth to send data - and texts use little data.  But people went nuts with it and they started charging more to send texts than to talk.  Some plans were like a dollar a text!  But it quickly became a fad, with those tiny little keyboards - or worse yet, trying to type using the numerical keypad.  People started obsessively texting, even while driving and while they were talking to you in person.

Then came cell phone cameras.   Now you could take pictures of everything - and everyone did - and send them to others via e-mail for a "small charge" of a buck a photo.  Suddenly, people were taking pictures of the meals they ate, or posing for group photos with every single goddam occasion.

The smart phone sealed the deal.   It had all the most offensive features of cell phones, and then more.  Not only could you yack, bluetooth, and text - all obsessively, of course - but you could also surf the web, look for sex, or balance your bank account.   Compulsive use of cell phones skyrocketed.

All of these inventions, taken by themselves, seemed like neat things at the time.   Everyone would be in touch!  You'd never miss a call!   And we could access a world of data, literally from our fingertips!

What the heck went wrong?   Well, part of it is human nature, the other part is marketing.   The cell phone turned out to be an electronic drug - as addictive and compulsive as crack or heroin.   I am sure that if you ask someone who was addicted to heroin and also had a smart phone, which was harder to quit, I suspect they would say the cell phone.  They stopped using heroin - they are still on their cell phone.

So why is this wonderful invention such an evil thing?  Or more precisely, how did it become such an evil thing?

To understand this, you have to understand the history of mass-media.   When Gutenberg created the printing press, he thought it was to make the Bible available for all.   Instead, the newspaper was created.   And we all know about the history of newspapers - yellow journalism, sensationalism, the National Enquirer, William Randolph Hearst, and the lot.   The printing press was a miracle, but mankind quickly found ways to use this great invention for evil - by distorting the truth and manipulating people to buy things, start wars, and elect odious candidates.  

What was it Hearst said?  "Give me the pictures, I'll give you the war!"

Radio took this all to the next level, and fascism wouldn't have been possible, I think, without this new breed of radio dictators.  Radio was everywhere - even in your car.  You could not escape it.  And unlike the printed word, it did not allow for reflection, contemplation, or response.   If you called "bullshit!" to a radio story, you would be hushed, just as if you shout at the TV today.

Germany had Hitler.  Italy had Mussolini.  Great Britain had Churchill.   We had Roosevelt.   All dynamic leaders who knew how to use the radio to their advantage.  Roosevelt used the radio to talk right into people's homes with his "fireside chats" - and was elected four times as a result.  Without Radio, I doubt he would have been re-elected once.    Radio created the great (and infamous) leaders of the 1930's.

Our generation, of course, was weaned on television, which took radio to a new level of mass-marketing, combining sound with compelling images (The "talking lamp" as some have dubbed it).   Presidents not only had to sound good, they had to look good, as Nixon found out the hard way, when he lost a debate (on Television) to a good-looking young Kennedy.   Radio listeners, on the other hand, felt Nixon carried the day.

Of course, television went on steroids in the 1970's when the "wired cities" cable movement took over, and suddenly, everyone had cable television.  Ad time went up, viewership went up (to about five hours a day, on average!) and more and more odious views found their way on the air.  With 500 channels, television could cater to every viewpoint, and often did and does.

The Internet, of course, was the next iteration of mass-media - and looks to supplant television in short order.  I don't watch five hours a day of television!  No sir!   I won't say how much time I waste on the Internet - or how much "television" (ad-free, for the time being) I download online.   The Internet was television plus much, much more.   Not only could they tell who was watching but what they were saying and what they were buying.   The marketing and media conglomerates have us in their pockets now, for good.

But even the Internet is now passe.   Kids today don't use computers for much - they text and tweet and Facebook from their smart phones or pad devices.   And these devices do all the things the Internet did and more.   They can now track where we go, what we buy (with smart phone payment systems) and, well, just about everything we do.   And most of this data, we provide willingly, in the form of tweets and updates and photos that we upload.

Like every other raw deal we face in life, it is one that we signed up for willingly even though we want to blame others for it.   And now most of us are chronically addicted to these devices, and can't put them down for even a moment.   Like a prepubescent boy who has just discovered his penis, they can't stop touching that thing - even for a minute.

And like that movie Invasion of the body snatchers I feel like the last person who doesn't have pods in his basement (iPods, of course).   All my friends have these devices, which is fine, but it is annoying as hell to deal with them as human beings.

They take phone calls while in the middle of a sentence, talking to you.   They take texts and text back, all while nodding while you talk, and when done, say, "what were you saying, again?"   They shout into their bluetooth devices during the middle of a conversation in a group, and then talk progressively louder and louder, as they try to drown out the room.   And of course, they text while driving - even "professional" drivers like truckers.

It goes without saying that if you have a smart phone, or even an old-fashioned cell phone, you should do the following:
1.  Let it go to voicemail:  If you are at a party or having a conversation, or driving, there is no need to take every single call in the world.  You won't "miss" anything, trust me.   If you really need to take an emergency call (and it had better be an emergency!) excuse yourself, leave the room, and take the call in private.  If you are in a car, pull over.  Talking on the phone in front of other people is just plain rude.

2.  Texting:  The same is true with texting.   Receiving and sending texts while talking to someone in person is rude and distracting.  What you are saying, when you do this, is that they are not as important as the person texting you.   Again, if you really need to send or receive a text, go to another room (or pull over the car) and answer the text.   Tell the person you are with company and can't respond to future texts.   Going back and forth with texts while in front of other people is just distracting and rude.

3.  Diddling with your Phone:   A lot of people just "play" with their phones all the time, surfing the net, looking at sex sites, or whatever.  Some folks just have to pick up their phones and look at them from time to time, so convinced they are going to "miss something" in the great online world, if they don't look at it constantly.   You might miss that text from Jesus!
It really is common sense - but no one does it and they never will.  The cell-phone addicted have no manners.  They are alcoholics without booze.  They are junkies with their electronic drug.   There literally is no hope for them, because I am not aware of any re-hab for cell phone addiction, and I think the recovery rate at this point in time is nil.

All of this, of course, convinces me more and more not to get a smart phone.   I see this behavior in other people and it appalls me.   They are so worried about missing something from their "online friends" that they spit in the face of real people.

I used to yak on the phone quite a bit - we had a 1600 minute per month plan, and we used it a lot - particularly when Mark was selling Real Estate.  Today, we have 1000 minutes a year and barely use all of those (last year, we went over for the first time in four years).   Yakking on the cell phone is probably the marijuana of electronic drugs, and it wasn't hard to quit.  Today, I don't even carry a cell phone with me when I leave the house, which some folks think is insane.   Trust me, you can survive without a cell phone, although it is annoying as there are no pay phones anymore.

Texting is probably the cocaine of electronic drugs, and since I never tried it, I never got hooked.   But most of my friends are - compulsively looking at their phones to see if someone is texting them, reading a text, or answering a text.   And like drunk drivers, texters cause deadly car accidents.   It ain't hard to spot a texter, either - they drift out of their lane while driving.   Easier to spot than a drunk driver!


It goes without saying that the more I unplug from media, the happier and more productive I am.   The least productive and most unhappy people I meet are the ones who have all the cable channels and the latest cell phone.

Smart phones, are of course the heroin of electronic drugs, as not only can you yak and text, but you can use a plethora of "apps" to annoy the snot out of everyone around you.   You can play music on Pandora, through your headphones, while texting, and walk right out into traffic and get run over - just like a junky.

Are these great technological innovations?  To be sure, yes.  And yes, I write Patents on these stupid things.   The problem I see, is that the marketers know full well what they are doing, and that these devices - and the apps - are addictive.   I am sure if you did a brain scan on someone while they were texting, the same parts of the brain that are triggered by drugs or alcohol, would light up like a neon sign.

Compulsively doing anything (even Blogging) is probably not good for you.  And if you think about it, there really is no valid reason to compulsively text, tweet, facebook, talk, or whatever on your cell phone.   There was a time, not very long ago, when none of this technology existed and back then, somehow, we struggled without being in "constant contact" with everyone.   Even before answering machines and pagers (which presaged our current phone mania - and had social problems of their own!)  People left messages, or told folks where they could be reached.   

But for the most part, we realized that not much of what we had to say was really all that urgent.   People wrote letters if they had a problem with the utility company, and they waited a week or so for an answer.  Mark's Grandmother would send a postcard to their relatives, telling them they would be arriving on the train tomorrow.   Since we didn't have all this instant communication available, we made our existing communication systems effective and efficient.   Letters were delivered within days, or even within a day - with regular postage.  And if you wanted to call someone while traveling there were banks of phone booths on nearly every corner.

Those days, of course, are gone for good, and no, I don't pine for the "good old days" of Ma Bell.

However, I have found that it is indeed possible to live in our modern era, and not have to text or tweet or facebook constantly and obsessively.   It is indeed possible to not have to answer every phone call on the first ring.   People can leave messages.  You can call them back.   What is odd to me, is that many people who call me, never bother to leave a message.   Thanks to caller ID, I can tell they called.   But what they called about wasn't important enough to leave a message.

In other words, about 90% or more of our communications today are totally unimportant communications.   So why do people constantly chat, yak, text, and tweet?

The short answer is:  Social Grooming.   It is that behavior that some of us feel is so annoying and trivial, but is essential to the proper functioning of any group.   People need to be "stroked" and acknowledged in order to feel valid or validated.   The text or tweet or stupid pointless gossipy phone call doesn't communicate any important data per se, but what it says is, "I acknowledge your existence and your importance in my life, and vice-versa".   And most of use spend a lot of time doing this.

It is one reason people get so pissed off that I disabled comments in this blog.  They don't want to read, but to interact, as if to say, "I exist!" even if they have nothing to say.   And yes, I do this behavior, too.

None of us (or few, anyway) are content to be anonymous or unknown.  We all want to be noticed and our existence known.   And that, in part, I think, is what drives this obsessive cell phone use.

Breaking free of this type of behavior is hard to do.  Damn hard!

It goes without saying that the more I unplug from media, the happier and more productive I am.   The least productive and most unhappy people I meet are the ones who have all the cable channels and the latest cell phone.