The Ubiquitous Cell Phone

They say that art imitates life and life imitates art.  It is sometimes in such an understanding that we must look for the origins of what people perceive that they need.  In this case, the cell phone.  It is near impossible to walk down a sidewalk, drive down a street, or sit in a public place without being subjected to someone nearby blathering away on one of these devices.  They have been embraced by the public in such an enthusiastic way that it hearkens back to the growth of the television industry half a century ago.  Where has the impetus for such a perceived need come from?  What do people envision when they think they must have one of these devices?

I think it goes back to Star Trek.

Star Trek, for the generation that saw it during its first run in the 60’s, was one of the few iconic television shows that bridged the gap between the counter-culture and society in general.  Beloved by fans of many diverse backgrounds, it brought Gene Roddenberry’s vision of anti-war sentiments to American viewers during the divisive period of the Vietnam War.  Although his philosophical messages were often hammered into the head of the viewer without much subtlety, it was always done with a touch of humor.  And behind it all was the belief that science, even weapons science, could be used to support ‘good,’ and that men of noble spirit could thwart the ‘evil’ science of the warmongers. This was still believed in the altruism of the times, although cynicism about the military channeling of science was growing rapidly in America.  The renunciation of violence as a means to an end was a prevalent plot device on many episodes.  The power of that original message was so strong that it resonated through several spin-off television series and several more movies continuing up to the present day 43 years later.

“Beam me up, Scotty,”  and similar variations of that message are found in almost every episode.  And although instantaneous transportation has yet to be realized, the ability to instantly communicate with people by a small hand-held device has become a commonplace occurrence.  This was something that was deemed ‘cool’ back in the 60’s and that perception seems to be behind the wild embrasure of such technology.  We have certainly had adequate phone service for our entire lives, with phones in our homes, our places of business, out on the street, in commercial stores, etc.

So the wildly popular acceptance of the technology seems to have come from, not filling a basic need that was missing, but rather, a desire to have the latest ‘cool toy.’  Unlike the cost of a laptop personal computer, which provided new technological capabilities to the consumer, the costly monthly service plans of the mobile phone industry seem designed to have us paying much more for a basic service that we already possessed, except that it was not sufficiently ‘cool.’  This is why the industry is not limited to a handful of professionals carrying out urgent responsibilities where the matter of a few minutes can make a difference, such as firemen, ambulance crews, or policemen.  This is also why we are now surrounded by constant blather where once there was some semblance of peace and quiet in the public moments of our lives.  Have you ever been walking along, and heard someone behind you say “Hello,” only to turn and see that they were not talking to you at all, but had just started a cell phone conversation?  Such is what I mean by blather.

There are strong cultural connotations and effects which are beginning to come into being from this new technology.  Most notably, the concepts of personal space and privacy are rapidly changing and will produce ripple effects for many years to come.  Personal space is already dramatically different with cell phone technology.  Several people in a confined area (doctor’s office, elevator, bus stop) used to produce some form of interactive social situation.  One could be shy or outgoing or reserved or conversational and it would be noted; it would make an impact (to whatever effect) on those around oneself.

This is already no longer true.  If there are three people situated in a close space and two of them are talking on their cell phones and one is not, it creates a new dynamic.  Each of those on the cell phone takes little to no notice of those around them at all.  They are ‘plugged in’ to the person on the other end of the phone, and ignore those directly in front of them.  All the communication is directed away from their physical location and those who are there with them.  The person in this example who is not talking on the cell phone is also in a new dynamic.  They are subjected to the personal information of the other two individuals without having a voice of their own to contribute.  The societal implications of this are profound, with what is considered polite, what is considered appropriate, and what is considered private all undergoing a new definition.

These societal changes, with their new dynamics of social behavior and human interaction, will most likely serve to separate people.  The current bonding between mankind and technology is being created at the cost of the bonding between people, particularly at the social level.  It has been common for some time now to enter a coffee shop and see people engrossed in their laptop computer and paying no attention to those around them at all.  Now, with the acceptance of cell phone technology, people are able to ignore those around them at all times.

“Beam me up, Scotty!”