Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Nutjob - or Cell Phone User? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
The lines between madness, magic, and technology continually blur further: first, the fun stuff - Wi-Fi Dowsing Rod lets you find wi-fi hotspots with this spiffy tool that looks like a water dowser's forked branch. That will definitely get you some strange looks about town. Come to think of it, cell phones are sort of nutty, too. Sometimes, I find it hard to remember what public spaces were like before cell phones came along - one could spend days wandering about, never hearing a disembodied "Godfather Theme" ringing on buses and trains, in classrooms, or outdoors.

Agent Maxwell Smart's shoe phone was ridiculously funny, simply because the idea of a hidden phone ringing (and answered) unexpectedly in public situations was rather absurd. It used to be when you saw someone cheerfully having a one-way conversation, you knew they were nuts insane, drunk, high, or all of the above.

All that's changed. In the early days of cell phones (the small handhelds, not the clunky brick-style phones), you'd have a sideways glance to assess the solo talker's clothing and general hygiene before making a snap judgement about their mental status, and if one of their hands were held close to their ear, you basically knew they were using a cell phone. Of course, they could have been holding an empty soup can or candy wrapper next to their ear, and I might not have known the difference.

Today, with tiny-in-your-ear handsfree units, the distinction is sometimes harder to make, especially during bulky-clothing season. I've been fooled into thinking I'm walking towards a nutjob mentally ill individual, when to my relief I spy a small wire with a microphone bulge in the center - like a miniature gorged python - leading down from their ear. Phew. They're okay. Considering some of the one-way conversations I've heard, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between crazies and businesspeople.

The most striking thing about many cell phone users is that they seem to be under the impression they're having a private conversation, and no one else in their surroundings can hear them. You often hear people discussing intimate financial, relationship, even sexual matters, on a cell phone in public places, deluded about their anonymity because outsiders only heard one side of the talk.

When you think about it, it's pretty strange that people would assume making a cell phone call is private - or that it entitles them to privacy. If you look over at someone having a loud, strange, very obvious public cell-phone conversation, you're likely to get that dirty "mine joan bizness" look, despite the fact that you can still hear every word they say if you make no eye contact. Rarely do the talkers seem to realize that they might be invading your private space with their jibberjabber.

However, lest you think only casual observers are studying the sociological aspects of cell phone use, Sociology of Switzerland has a page full of weblinks connecting to free online scholarly manuscripts dealing with cell phone use - for example, "The Family in the Networked Society: A Summary of Research on the American Family," by Christine Bachen, or Rich Ling's "It's 'in'. It doesn't matter if you need it or not, just you have it.' Fashion and domestication of the mobile telephone among teens in Norway." If I wrote a paper on the sociology of cell phone use, I'd probably name it "Nutjob or Cell Phone User? External Perceptions of Solo Conversations in Public Spaces."

[Wifi Dowsing Rod and Sociology of Switzerland links via Angermann2]