The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

The Cell Phone Zone

Cell phones, Bluetooth ear adornments, are now extensions of mind

cellphones.jpegI was waiting at the Baltimore airport to board a flight back home. I had just come from a conference where I was helping to develop a program in media psychology for an online university. Lacking, as I do, much personal user experience and all the attendant life events that accompany "smart" or dumb cell phone use and life style, I am perpetually primed to watch how the cutting edge world actually negotiates life in THE CELL PHONE ZONE.

Watching people in this mobile phone zone, wherever they happen to be, is coerced or voluntary cellular eavesdropping, depending on what cell phone (CP) function is being tapped. There is always a tale. Picture someone (even you) trying to make or receive a call in the twilight world of dead or drop zones (is there a drop dead zone?). I've seen people cursing, exasperated, leaning out windows, raising and shifting their CP as if it were demoted to a semaphore flag in a post-apocalyptic world. I've seen them rushing up hills, out of Hollywood Hills caves at a shoot, to cliffs' edges, to "get more bars." 

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I'll drink to that.

I live in a drop zone -- a dead zone maybe. Verizon support minions do not enter. Here, they back up no one.

In the airport, freedom rings. I watch the phone people navigate wireless space in their Zone. Soon it becomes clear. CPs provide two freedoms: 1) the freedom of perpetual connectivity, and 2) the freedom to live a desperate existence waiting for the inevitable disconnect or no connect.

Like Mr. Spock, I find all this most interesting. I observe nothing less than a wireless travelogue of possibilities as people actively, behaviorally define new social and psychological cultures around mobile communication technologies (MCT). New priorities and etiquettes arise to cater to emerging necessities. I watch the agonies and ecstasies associated with smart phone technologies, phone owners seduced by print or TV graphics, by their hi-sheen, their large font promises of freedom and enhanced "me-ness," brief joy only to be later unsheened by the overlooked or underestimated small font, frustrating qualifiers and extra costs.

I observe and write, not as a Luddite, but as someone who lives within the prosaic, even primitive world of landlines and laptops. In airports, train stations or at bus stops, virtually anywhere that people have to wait, I watch and take notes of an MCT culture aborning, adapting, evolving.

There are light and dark sides to all cultures. Since the dawn of modern technology (perhaps all technology), boosters of change have rebutted critics of this or that change: It's not the technology; it's what people do with it that hurts or harms society. Think freedom. Think automobiles. Think planes. Then think carbon footprints.

Others, those reflexive Cassandras, have cast a wary eye at anything new, fearing the unknown or some unanticipated, unintended consequence. Yes, some advances in technology have unleashed pent up predilections for addictions or compulsions. Think telephone. Think television. Think videotape. Think pornography. Think Internet escapism. But we sacrifice the few for the many. Some pay so that many more can play.

We quickly adopt and adapt. It's the American Way. But we are really only village people in city states. We are tribalists in individualist, urban enclaves. Some who have set up house in the Cell Phone Zone soon fear the loneliness in being "unconnected," untethered. Others need audiences to their cellular performances, need to make the private public, need to appear wittier, more important, or more pivotal than they may actually feel inside - a tedious business for those of us within earshot.

Many sat around the boarding gate zone at the Baltimore airport, CP in hand, mind engaged in ritual steps: talking, waiting to talk, or thinking of whom to talk to. One fellow had the air of a Thursday night, bar-trolling, Thirtysomething bachelor frantically leafing through his black book as mythic midnight approaches.

There they sit, or stand, or pace; their "smart" sleek, glass and plastic, electronic worry totem at the ready, poised to reach out and touch somebody, maybe just anybody. No one in the phone's memory is safe; no one in the contact list is off the table; everyone is part of the life space (the phenomenological "now,") or waiting at the foreign hull of the life space (the forces, people and events that could be part of "now," at any moment, waiting just off stage left of consciousness), ready to enter it at any time through the invitational portal of a speed dialer.

In that airport, cell phones and increasingly requisite Bluetooth ear adornments, are now extensions of mind and of body, totems, reaching out or pulling in some voice, some person, some where. Connecting. And all the while not connecting with that person sitting in front of, across from, next to them, someone who is--and remains--forever unknown.

The Cell Phone Zone is social in only the illusory sense. In actual social settings, face-to-face settings, the flesh plays second fiddle to the telemetric presence or intrusion. People sit or walk side-by-side as if in a social dyad, but it is an illusion. They talk not to each other but to telemetric others. How do we feel when our flesh and blood pales in priority to a disembodied, cellular voice whose mere interruption outranks?

Is it social conditioning? Is it connectivity needs? How do social graces get up ended by mobile communication technology? And so quickly, as normative changes go: if you're present, I'm assured of your bond? If someone calls, the caller is a less sure quantity. They must be attended to, courted, even coddled until I feel safe and secure in our bond Yet, when is my number of friends enough to feel secure in my desirability, acceptability, worthiness? There's always Facebook.

We'll always have Facebook.


cellphones.jpegThe stone drug addict has 3 stages of existence:
1. looking for the score
2. getting high
3. coming down, then back to looking for the score
The CP-dependent's score is the connection, the phone connection. The high is the talk. If the drug addict is really desperate, he will take some wretchedly anemic score, almost anything that mimes the rush, the nod, anything that kills the need --- for a while. So too with the phone score: Speed dial, wait, nothing, speed dial again. And again. A hit. An exhale. A perk-up.

In the Cell Phone Zone, in a drought, in a long wait in a car or at an airport, almost anyone at the other end is better than nothing. The person on the other end doesn't know if he's a good score or a desperate fall back, of course. You know the routine; you may have run it yourself: You, Bud, hit the speed dial for the fifth time at an airport Starbucks. Finally you score. A pick-up on the other end: "Hello ... Yes, this is Bill Gray. Who's this? ... Bud! Bud Anderson! What a surprise. I haven't heard from you in ... Oh, stuck at the airport, eh? Time to kill, I guess... So, uh, hmm, uh, how's your sister Betty?"

Some authors observe that telephone contact for many has become normative, while face-to-face exchanges have become less common and less comfortable. Less comfortable? Yes, less comfortable. Face-to-face conversation demands more focused attention. Face-to-face conversations can expand beyond a point where one or both parties want to go. Brief is good. Pointed is good. Even inane is good.  It's quick.  Does the job.

Yes, reaching out in speed dial mode is a risk -- Will someone care? But less than the risk of talking to the person next to you. Better to be alone in a crowd. In the Cell Phone Zone. At the Baltimore airport.


Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.


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