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One Last Thing: What are cell phones doing to our society?

A year ago, Mayor John Street took heat for skipping out of the office to wait in line for an iPhone on the day the gadget debuted. I was one of the people who piled on.

A year ago, Mayor John Street took heat for skipping out of the office to wait in line for an iPhone on the day the gadget debuted. I was one of the people who piled on.

Having just procured an iPhone myself, I owe the former mayor an apology: He could have waited in line for a week - for a month - and nothing he missed at City Hall would have been as valuable and worthwhile as the latest bit of technological crack released by our overlords in Cupertino, Calif. The iPhone is the greatest gizmo in a generation, and I applaud the mayor for proclaiming his witness.

And yet . . .

For all the many wonders of the iPhone, there is something genuinely disturbing about cell culture itself. The cellular telephone (as the old folks call it) has changed social behavior just as radio and television did. Wander down any street and you'll see people walking and speaking aloud to no one in particular. You might take them for loons - until you notice the flashing blue light on the device hooked to their right ear - the telltale sign of the Bluetooth headset. Fifty years ago, walking around talking to yourself in public would have gotten you institutionalized. Today it's standard operating procedure. This isn't progress - at least not the good kind.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center; I like to think of her as the premier techno-scold of our time. Her classic 2004 essay, "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves," is a penetrating view of what the mobile phone has wrought and is worth revisiting.

There are the quotidian problems of the cell phone: The ringing interruptions that intrude on every aspect of daily life - in movies, at church, during dinner. In the infamous Paris Hilton video of a few years back - which surely you did not see - there was a moment when, in the midst of an amorous encounter, Miss Hilton's cell phone rings off-camera. Hilton vaults off the bed at light speed, leaving her partner clutching at the air. The viewer hears Hilton shriek with recognition as she examines the caller ID; her playmate looks down dejectedly.

Perhaps few of us have suffered this level of cellular abuse, but the tweeting, beeping tone is a constant artifact of life these days, and one I suspect most of us would just as well do without.


phonus interruptus

is just the most obvious problem the cell phone presents. There's also the way it breaks down the walls of privacy. When people yack on their phones in public about their most personal matters, they are forcing the rest of us to become privy to their confidences.

Americans may not completely grasp the indignity of it all, but the British certainly do. As James Meek observed in the Guardian, the cell phone encourages people to "invite strangers, spontaneously, into our personal worlds. We let everyone know what our accent is, what we do for a living, what kind of stuff we do in our non-working hours." Rosen's analogy, a better fit for Yankee sensibilities, is that it's "a form of communications panhandling - forcing our conversations on others without first gaining their tacit approval."

Yet there is a deeper problem still, as Rosen explains: The cell phone "encourages us to connect individually, but disconnect socially, ceding, in the process, much that was civil and civilized."

Sociologists and communitarians are somewhat obsessed with the idea of public spaces - places where strangers necessarily bump up against one another and form community. When we talk on cell phones in public, we are, as Rosen points out, intentionally removing ourselves from the public space in a form of "radical disengagement" with the public sphere. We're participating in an activity that doesn't just exclude those around us, it imposes on them too - in effect declaring our neighbors to be less important than we are. Or worse: It's a little bit like telling them that they don't exist.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. The sociologists Christian Licoppe and Jean-Philippe Heurtin have posited that modernity is constantly deinstitutionalizing personal bonds at every level. The effects of the cell phone are very much of a piece with their thesis. We have traded the rich tapestry of social cohesion - chatting with the cashier at the grocery store or with the fellow in the elevator - for these tiny, often useless, individual connections with those we already know.

Let's not fool ourselves: There's a qualitative difference between talk and conversation. As Rosen deliciously puts it, "Conversation (as opposed to 'talk') is to genuine sociability what courtship (as opposed to 'hooking up') is to romance."

Now if only I could break off this tawdry affair with my iPhone.

One Last Thing:

Beginning next week, "One Last Thing" with Jonathan Last is moving to the Friday Commentary Page. Starting next week, we welcome "Back Channels" with Kevin Ferris to Currents.