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Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Wireless communication ensnares Americans

July 30, 2000

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Watching someone talking and gesturing in a telephone booth exemplified what John-Paul Sartre meant by "the absurd."

What would poor Sartre say if he were alive today surrounded by people gabbing on their cell phones? Perhaps he'd mutter the famous line from his play, "No Exit," L'enfer c'est les autres, "Hell is other people."

But the cell phone phenomenon is worse than Sartre's absurd. We're condemned to listen in restaurants, theatres, on the street to all those inane, one-sided conversations: "Just checking in Not much, how about you?" At least you didn't have to hear what the fellow in the telephone booth was saying.

Is there any sight more forlorn than that of someone listening and speaking into that little box, or playing a video game or walking about with earphones clamped on? I nearly weep when I see someone with a paging device clamped to his belt another human being on a leash.

What is this mania for "keeping in touch?" It used to be that people talked about getting away from it all. A cabin without a phone or television was something you dreamed about. Being out of touch was therapeutic, liberating. It gave you a chance to recharge your spiritual batteries and recover a sane perspective on life.

These days people take their cell phones and lap tops on vacation, into the duck blind, onto the bass boat. They check their e-mail and voice mail hourly and become panicky if no one's trying to track them down in the woods or on the beach.

The idea of pulling out a cell phone in an idle moment is as alien to me as the idea of catching a fish and then releasing it. I abhor the sound of a telephone ringing. It either means you owe someone money or someone wants to sell you something.

Talking exhausts me anyway. I'm an assassin of conversations. Even if I have something important to say, a stroke of wit or a slice of gossip, when I open my mouth it casts a pall over the chatter. People begin grimacing and looking around for routes of escape. Why would I want to call up a friend or a loved one and ruin his day?

Most people today seem to dread a moment of silence. They think of the mind as an appliance, a passive receptor that's not working if it's not plugged in. "Going on line" is like drawing breath for some. Interruption of the flow of multimedia sounds and images is as threatening as failure of a life support system. The voice upstairs that's you talking is working overtime, sending urgent messages, pouring out ideas, warnings, insights, images, bits of poetry. It's shaping character and destiny and no one's listening.

Try to imagine Ishmael in the crow's nest of the Pequod with a cell phone to his ear. It can't be done. The Catskill eagle would never have gotten off the ground.

According to a recent article in Science News, people will soon be wearing computers as articles of clothing. The computers will always be on and "participating unobtrusively, even automatically, in nearly every facet of one's life.

Conventional conversation, for one thing, will become obsolete. An "agent" in the computer will be listening in, feeding you bits of information relevant to any subject you're talking about, even providing you with appropriate quips. In a courtship situation, the computer will guide both parties away from faux pas and will provide opening lines and banter. No one will ever be "at a loss for words."

It won't be necessary to have a personality good news for some of us. We'll all become "a curious amalgam of human and machine." Champions of the technology speak of an "enhanced self." The image that comes to mind is of Gulliver tied to the ground by a thousand fiber optic strings.

Whatever happened to the vigil musing the obscure, the quest to wrest some meaning out of life? It's been replaced by sitcom wisecracks, canned laughter and banal phone messages. How impoverished we're going to feel when we reach the next world with nothing in our memory vaults but bytes of info, scenes from Seinfield and reminders to call the office.

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