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December 1, 2005: The Downside of Cell Phones Printer Friendly Version


The Downside of Cell Phones
(Based on conversations with Paul Breneman and Scott Pinkelman)

James Herod
December 2005

Alternative Titles:
The Cell Phone Scourge
Some Drawbacks to Cell Phones
Socially Destructive Effects of Cell Phones

I had the pleasure recently of listening to a couple of keen rants against cell phones by two of my acquaintances. Here I attempt to summarize their points, adding a few of my own, although I don’t think I have captured the passion they brought to the subject. Having just moved from suburbia back into an urban environment, I am amazed at how many people are talking on cell phones, on the streets, in stores, in restaurants, in cars, on buses, and in the subways.

1. Users of cell phones have a reduced awareness of and interaction with people and situations in their immediate environment. They isolate themselves, so to speak, from those around them. For example, a person making a purchase at a check out counter, while talking on the phone, may be mostly unaware of the cashier, the tab, or the change. The whole thing just happens, while their mind is away somewhere else. This invention is thus contributing to the further atomization of society into an aggregate of isolated individuals. It is a destroyer of face-to-face social interaction.

2. Users of cell phones have less time for observation, reflection, daydreaming, or for just looking out upon the world in silence. Cell phones induce a state of mind that dislikes being alone. They generate a need to always be in contact and communication with someone.

3. Users of cell phones are in more intense communication with their small inner circle of friends and relatives, at the expense of communication with those they are actually physically with. One has to wonder whether all this talk is really needed, and what purpose it serves. As social life in neighborhoods and communities has continued to disintegrate and disappear, all that is left are these small networks of acquaintances. You may not know the person living next door, but you talk at length on the phone with a friend or relative who lives across town.

4. Oral communication by phone is a truncated, partial communication, as compared with face-to-face conversation. All the body language is lost, including facial expressions and nuances of emotion. The physical context is lost too. What is left is a disembodied voice.

5. Users of cell phones are often rude to those around them. They frequently break off in the middle of a sentence of conversation with the person or persons they are with in order to answer the phone. Increasingly they don’t even excuse themselves. It is just assumed that the cell phone caller takes priority over the actually existing conversation. This obviously has the effect of suppressing the conversation that was in progress. If it was a group conversation, other lines of talk may eventually start up among the remaining participants, but certainly not immediately, not without a moment of awkwardness, and certainly not without loss of continuity. If it was just two people conversing, one is left sitting there listening to the other person talk on the phone. I have watched situations like this stretch out to ten or fifteen minutes. The cell phone user is sitting there gossiping with some remote person, while the friend is sitting alone with nothing to do but wait for the phone conversation to end. Phone call interruptions were bad enough when you had to get up and go to another spot to pick up the receiver. Now the damn things are right there, in everyone’s pocket or purse. I guess I’ll never forget what Senator Irving said during the Watergate Hearings: "The telephone is an instrument of the devil."

6. In many work situations, where workers are separated somehow from their supervisors, cell phones increase the control the boss is able to exercise over employees. The boss is just a ring away, and you have to pick up. Cell phones are incredible instruments of control. Workers have much less space than before. They are never free from supervision for very long. The potential for control afforded by cell phones is also being taken advantage of in private life too. I once knew a husband married to a domineering wife. He was never free from her, because of the cell phone, which he came to detest with passion. She could reach him everywhere, at work, in the car, in the supermarket, at the club. I’m sure the same thing holds for the more frequent case of the domineering husband. The cell phone enables him to micro-manage his wife. I suppose it would work in reverse too: dependent persons are more easily able to call out to their significant suppliers of support.

7. Cell phones are detrimental to real organizing and planning. Instead of working things out in advance, together, it is left to the on-the-spot, moment-to-moment coordination by those with cell phones. Usually this turns out to be just one person on each end, even though others may also have cell phones. That is, the face-to-face, direct, participatory decision making by a group is circumvented, and replaced instead by one or more coordinators using cell phones to communicate. Thus cell phones, so used, foster hierarchy and leadership, not anti-authoritarian direct democracy.

8. Studies have shown that driver response (alertness, reflex times) is significantly slower for those drivers who are talking on a cell phone. Thus cell phones are dangerous when used by drivers and contribute to highway accidents. (Try to find a reference to this study that I saw once, or a review of it.)

9. Cell phones damage brain cells. This is especially true for children. The research establishing this fact has been thoroughly assembled, reviewed, and summarized by George Carlo and Martin Schram in their book Cell Phones.  I heard them give an hour presentation of their findings once on C-Span. It was quite persuasive in my opinion. Yet their book has had no discernible impact of cell phone use. Tens of millions of people use cell phones daily. Seldom has a new technology spread with such wildfire rapidity -- and before the product has even been proved safe. Corporate control of information is so thorough that questions about the safety of cell phones can hardly even be raised.

10. Cell phones have toxic components. I’ve heard that every cell phone has a rare toxic metal in it, which can only be found in the Congo. Cell phones eventually get discarded, so all this poison is going into the environment. (Check this out and flesh out if true.)

11. Cell phones can be tracked by satellite. Thus, if you are talking on a cell phone, the government can, if it wants to, locate your exact position, anywhere on earth. This is definitely scary.


So why do people use them? Why are they so popular? Well, it is clearly an incredible invention. No matter where you are, you can type in a number on the cell phone and then start talking to another person, no matter where they are. Telephone communication is no longer limited to stationary phones somewhere. The phone goes with you. So lovers, for example, who want to rendezvous, can do so more easily with cell phones. They can keep in touch, to plan their trysts. A son or daughter who goes to the store to get something for mother, can, if the choices are not what was anticipated, call home to get further instructions. And so forth.