A couple of years ago it was estimated that there were something like 120 million cellphone users in the United States, 20 times the number in 1990. The cellphone was, nonetheless, still new; and its users in public places, still a minority, were a hated lot, hated, that is to say, by those of us who didn't own a cellphone.
They were everywhere, yammering away, in the bus, on the train, at the station, in lobbies and parks, in shops and galleries, and out on the street, yes, yammering away. I once saw a young man with a cellphone pressed to his ear on a sidewalk of New York, riding a unicycle.
Everywhere we were regaled by those unsolicited one-way chats -- ceaseless greetings and interminable idle prattles as well as business negotiations and point-by-point instructions but, most irritably, those details of personal life, medical, marital, and merely mundane. Once on an Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York a woman in a business suit seated right behind me was continuously on the phone giving instructions to each of her employees, and she was talking in full volume as though she was giving orders in her own office. Another time on the same stretch of the train ride, a man, selling a service, made at least a dozen different calls. A young woman on a bus late at night was giving her mother a minute-by-minute report of the date she had just concluded. Time and again I was startled by a friendly "hi," only to find on turning around that someone was talking into a cellphone. A woman in a Starbucks was yakking away an instruction to someone at home to get her supper started so that it would be ready when she got home, and the whole procedure was taking at least twenty minutes; when she hang up, a group of customers at a nearby table cheered at the top of their voice: "Thank you for sharing." The problem, as I formulated it, was privacy invading public places. Cellphones that play a tune instead of just ringing like common telephones are particularly obnoxious.
It was never hard to make fun of cellphone yammerers. The best story was in the Metropolitan Diary of the New York Times (27 November 2000). When a cellphone rang in a crowded bus a woman cried out without losing a beat: "If that's for me, I'm not here." In another story a woman in a stall, thinking she was addressed to by the occupant nextdoor, started up a conversation with her but realized her error when the latter shouted back at her: "Will you shut up. I'm on the phone."
In the short satirical film, Yakkers, by a friend of mine, Bruce Weinstein, who wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it, he plays the character with a video camera who aggressively participates or intrudes in the cellphone conversation or challenges its users in public places, questioning their right to pollute public air space.
Cellphone users speak notoriously loud. Bruce told me that this is because the cellphone often lacks the mechanism that amplifies the speaker's voice on this end and thus give the illusion that she or he is not heard on the other side unless the voice is raised. My theory is that vanity was a ssignificant factor. In those early years cellphone users considered themselves privileged, and many raised their voice even if unconsciously in order to be heard by all around them so as to draw attention proudly to their prized cellphone. And those of us irritated by their yakking became antagonistic out of suppressed jealousy, although we would, of course, deny such a sentiment. It is interesting that cellphones spread most quickly among the urban youths, who normally speak loud. It was also more quickly adopted by low wage earners, and it is still resisted by the better-to-do and better educated older middle class snobs, probably academics most of all. The pattern of propagation is not unlike that we had seen for television first and color television later. I count myself among the latter faction. But my resistance is breaking down. I witnessed a young office worker talking on his cellphone explaining that he is a bit late but will be there in five minutes because he is just five blocks away. That's convenience.
By the time of this writing (March 2003), it looks like cellphone owners are already a majority. There is no question that the cellphone is addictive; its convenience surpasses the bad image as a public nuissance. I predict that in no time now the cellphone will be in every pocket or purse if not fully engaged in the palm of its owner. My sense is that as more people use the cellphone, there will be fewer non-users, and in consequence criticism will dissipate. How can anyone speak against it while making a good use of it herself or himself? With more users, too, I suspect that their voice levels will inevitably subside.
Last November the City Council of New York "introduced a bill to ban the use of cellphones in places of public performance, and a resolution calling on the M.T.A. to prohibit cellphone use on buses and subways" (New York Times, 28 November 2002, "Topics of The Times" ). This, to put it bluntly, is stupid, or, to say the least, inefficient. It is, in fact, often on board a public transport when a cellphone comes particularly handy -- as in a traffic jam, an unexpected delay, or, most critically, an emergency. The crux of the social problem attributed to cellphne use is not cellphone use per se. It is talking loudly and indiscreetly; it is broadcasting private conversations in public places. A company of people on the train, engaged in lively conversations, can make a nuissance of themselves when they get boisterous no less than a yakker on a cellphone. It is a sense of courtesy and discretion that holds back the rising decibel. Young people in public places are often unrestrained in their loud and sometimes unruly behavior; in time they learn to curb themselves as they mature. People who speak loud cannot be restrained by a ban; they have to learn manners. Manners can be taught but they cannot be legislated.
There was a time when the boom box was a public nuissance. That was controlled by a ban. But boom box fanatics were a well-defined set. Cellphone users will soon encompass the entire population, rich and poor, young and old, professional and unemployed, polite and rude, men and women, immigrants and natives, and whisperers and yakkers.
We learn to walk on the busy street without bumping into everyone in our way; we don't talk to everyone we encounter just because we feel like it. We learn to distinguish the topics of conversation that may be acceptable in the privacy of one's home but improper in polite social gathering or in public places. We can learn to use the cellphone discreetly. Otherwise we'd find the whole urban milieu turn into a shouting contest.
I don't know as yet when I will get myself a cellphone. But I am in no doubt that I will have one eventually, sooner, I admit, than I would like to think at this time.
T. Kaori Kitao, 03.18.03
Nine months since writing this essay, I capitulated and got a cellphone, indeed much sooner than I thought then. I have been using it for two weeks now and I am very happy with it. That I capitulated is not exactly correct; I yielded to the fact that having a cellphone is a matter of courtesy. Being om transit a lot between Philadelphia and New York and often out of the house at either end, it became imperative, out of coutesy to friends, who kept missing me day and night that I have a cellphone so that they can get in touch with me more easily. The convenience, of course, is mutual. I know I will never be without one from now on.
I wouldn't be surprised if cellphones eventually obliterated house phones. Cellphone will then redefine the term telephone as an equipment attached to one's body rather than fixed in a house, individually owned rather than shared by the family.
In the course of these nine months, too, cellphone users have learned to lower their voices audibly. Annoying talkers are loud mouths with or withour cellphone. Many, more women than men in my observation, talk as they walk.
I have a long way yet to learn all the special functions on the handset. I still haven't learned to walkie-talkie.
T. Kaori Kitao, 12.25.03