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New Line for Lowly Phone Booth

It's outdated, sure, but a personal vice just might keep it alive.

January 06, 2003|Nick Schulz | Nick Schulz is editor of the Web site www.TechCentralStation.com.

Clark Kent is the latest symbol of the disruptive power of capitalism. His superhero cocoon, the phone booth, is becoming extinct.

The life and imminent death of the phone booth come at the hands of the dynamic capitalist process that the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." The creation of the modern cell phone system is destroying the phone booth.

A functioning global cellular network has finally emerged, and, for better or worse, society has moved past the point where it is considered rude to hold a private conversation in public. So almost no one uses phone booths to make private calls anymore.

This shouldn't surprise. Cell phones are relatively cheap these days, and the cost of maintaining and cleaning a phone booth is high.

Yet with the death of the phone booth, we stand to lose more than just a place to make telephone calls. It long ago expanded beyond its utility function and entered the realm of the iconic.

Besides Clark changing into his alter ego, Superman, there was the phone booth packing fad of the 1950s. And who isn't charmed by those bright red phone call boxes, the adorable and enduring symbol of merry England (and its long-standing telecommunications monopoly, British Telecom) lining the streets of Piccadilly or Westminster? But the ubiquity of cell phones means the phone booth is likely to go the way of the gas lamp or the horse-drawn carriage.

So there is now the question of what to do with the millions of phone booths around the world, those now-empty reminders of a simpler communications era. Instead of destroying them for good, maybe there's a way to stave off the cold Schumpeterian dynamic and instead tackle some of the needs of the present day.

After all, phone booths usually occupy choice real estate in and around busy urban centers with lots of foot traffic. And what is it that some of our urban centers are lacking that they desperately need?

Places to smoke.

The war on tobacco continues across the nation. New York is only the most recent city to prohibit smoking in all bars and eateries. California has the nation's toughest protections against secondhand smoke. Smoking has been banned in most U.S. workplaces.

Many nonsmokers profess to be offended to even catch a whiff of tobacco as some Marlboro Man puffs away walking down the street, most likely talking on his cell phone.

So let's have some compassion for the puffers among us and solve the next smoking debate before it even gets started. We can convert phone booths into smoking sanctuaries, oases from the moral scolds, the snide remarks and withering sneers of the health police. Those merchants of death, the tobacco companies, could even be made to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the little urban tar temples.

Schumpeter believed that the process of creative destruction might one day yield to attempts at central planning by governmental authorities. So as long as our government authorities set out to plan the livability of our urban spaces and public gathering places, they might as well keep in mind the wants and needs of the last unprotected minority in our midst, smokers.

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