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Withdrawing Into Our Cells

Rampant use of mobile phones is affecting how we communicate--and fail to--in our private and public lives


Wireless technology has made it easier than ever to learn more about a perfect stranger's life. The task isn't accomplished through computer wizardry or high-tech listening devices. It's nothing illegal, nothing inappropriate--at least on your part. Nope. All you have to do is to walk around in the 21st century in any industrialized nation in the world and listen for "cell yell."

The condition afflicts cell phone users and can strike anywhere, any time, but mostly seems to overcome people in crowded public places such as restaurants, public transport and even the workplace. Under its sway, the caller will speak in a voice at twice, maybe triple, the volume of a normal conversation. And the things they talk about! Bounced checks, strange rashes, lovers' spats.

Cell yell is just one of the many unanticipated consequences of a cell phone planet. Its massive electronic tentacles are influencing more than just our relationship with others, though it is doing precisely that, but it's also changing our personal behavior in broad and subtle ways never envisioned.

And more than anything, we are discovering just how far and wide mind and body can be separated--because now we can be where we aren't, no matter where we are.

"What it's done is to change our view of reality," asserts John Petersen, founder and president of the Arlington Institute, a future-oriented think thank in Arlington, Va. "You remember not so long ago when making a long-distance phone call was a big deal? You'd say, 'I'm calling long distance,' and you were supposed to drop everything? Now it's not a big deal anymore to get a call from anywhere on the globe."

More change is certainly on the way. Within five years, futurists predict cell phones will continue to shrink in size but expand in capability. The hand-held device will not only be able to make phone calls but will also function as a computer and perhaps even as a television. From there, they say, who knows--but don't rule out the possibility of a communications chip implanted in the body.

But even now the world is a much smaller place because of the ubiquity of the cell phone. In the United States, among the slowest of the industrialized nations to adopt the cell phone, nearly two in three, or about 137 million, people use the device.

Little more than a decade ago, market studies by telecommunications companies indicated that, at best, cell phone users in America would top out at 3 million, according to Michael Zey, a sociologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey. At first, people claimed to value their privacy too much to have it interrupted without warning by a cell phone, according to Zey.

"Focus groups said, 'I would never accept a cell phone in my car because it's one of the few private places where the boss, my spouse, my kids can't reach me,' " Zey said. "Well, that changed."

In the workplace, cell phones are the latest tech tool to blur the line between office and home. The cell phone--some call it an electronic leash--has made it easier than ever for a boss to reach a worker any time, anywhere with the tacit understanding that there are few viable excuses for missing the call.

The cell phone even eliminated the few precious minutes of mental preparation time provided by its predecessor, the pager. Now, when the cell phone rings, the worker has only seconds to collect his or her thoughts and recognize the caller, then answer. The result is that many workers feel pressure to be on call 24/7.

"The expectation because of this technology is: Now I have to know what my boss is thinking before I get to work," Zey said. "The workday never ends."

Cell phone users can also face stiff challenges in focusing on the conversation. On a land line, callers are usually in familiar surroundings and thus less distracted by their environment and can more easily concentrate. With a cell phone, however, caller and receiver can easily miss an important detail as they multitask their way through traffic, a grocery store or the disapproving stares of fellow restaurant patrons.

Leaving even more room for miscommunication are newer cell phones with the capability of sending and receiving e-mails. "We always had bosses who had difficulty writing a memo," Zey said. "Well, multiply that by 1,000 times."

In the workplace, cell phones have created other unexpected problems among co-workers, especially in offices with closely spaced desks and cubicles.

For some workers, the office phone isn't enough--they need a private, personal line. Thus cell phones have begun creeping into the workplace, and there's no doubt the calls aren't all business or even for legitimate personal business.

"One of the main reasons it gets under people's skin is that when people talk on a cell phone, it's as if everyone around them ceases to exist, and that's very insulting," said Carol Page, a Boston public relations consultant and founder of "Also, I think people just can't stand to overhear inane personal conversations."

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