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What's all this cell phone stuff, anyway?

Summary: Drivers weaving across lanes. People walking into walls. They're all staring dumbly down at their phones.

(Bob Pease passed away in June, ironically returning home from Jim William's - another analog guru - funeral. I have been at a loss for words, but decided to honor Bob's memory by plagiarizing his ineffable "what's all this stuff, anyway" headline.)

One wag commented that it would have taken a truly prescient person a century ago to realize that Henry Ford's creation would revolutionize the sex lives of teenagers. The car is a form of transportation, but it has become so much more. A restaurant. A bordello. Movie theater. And now a telephone booth.

Here in Maryland it's against the law to use a hand-held cell phone while driving. It's also illegal to text while driving. Text while driving? I can barely text while sitting still. First one has to hold the phone at exactly the right distance so, with a minute or two of head tilting, one finds that tiny spot in the progressive lenses so the screen isn't blurry. Then search through pages of apps to find the SMS utility. Punch at the keyboard - whose keys are so small misses occur more often than hits. No problem, the phone corrects spelling errors, but invariably embarrassing mis-corrections get sent out.

Then there are the hazards of public spaces. Signs often ban skateboarding, but that activity has a fraction of the peril of walking. For pretty much everybody is strolling - or even sprinting - with cell tightly gripped, staring into the display. Head down, typing, talking, emailing, gaming, checking calendars, the common theme is utter distraction. People careen into each other. It's sort of fun, in a way, like bowling, watching the people go down.

I wonder what would happen if someone switched on a cell jammer? Would a sea of panicked individuals start shaking their phones, punching buttons, or otherwise try to fix the momentary, but apparently life-threatening, disruption? Or would we see vacant eyes appear as they glance around and think, "uh, I guess I'm in the airport"?

I've been in meetings where a dozen very highly compensated souls are fully engaged with at least one electronic device, be it laptop, cell or Crackberry. The meeting stutters along fitfully and redundantly as one after another briefly surfaces from their electronic stupor to ask for the same point to be repeated. Is this the new etiquette? I suspect Miss Manners would be appalled, should she glance up from her iPhone.

It's still illegal to use a cell phone on an airplane. Complain about the nanny state all you want, I'll fight to the last breath to keep that law. It's bad enough to be cramped for 16 hours into a space no warden would consider humane. The only conceivable way to make that torture worse would be to be squeezed between two yahoos yakking at 100 db on their phones. Even the CIA doesn't employ such tactics at Gitmo.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas believes that one should craft moral choices based on what the decision will say about you as a person. I don't want to be a slave to the insistent beeps of any gizmo. So maybe I'm not as responsive to email, texts and calls as some would like. Leave a message. I'll get back to you when I can devote my full attention to our interaction. Because I'm too damn busy avoiding the distracted drivers and walkers.

Published August 18, 2011