This column has long questioned the need for California drivers to make telephone calls while they are operating a motor vehicle. So when it became law on July 1st that you couldn’t talk and drive without a hands-free device, there was some sense of things moving down the right road. Yet there’s always that other part to progress or even common-sense legislation.
Make it illegal to have fireworks, and those whose rigorously intellectual lives require M-80’s and bottle rockets will now set off illegal fireworks. Tell people they can’t smoke indoors and the front of every business and restaurant hosts a permanent cloud of carbon monoxide and tar. Ban tint on car windows and now the windows come down… so that everybody can enjoy the delicate poetry and social commentary of your favorite music.
Researchers may someday conclude that where it all went wrong was cell phones. Why did the citizens of the early 21st century feel compelled to take telephones along everywhere they went? There was no similar trend with other household appliances. There were no cell toaster ovens or a wireless blender for the spontaneous mixing of margaritas on the streets. The refrigerated backpacks of the late 1980s caused untold hernias and your Klondike bar was still squishy by the time you got to the beach.
Tiny portable phones went forward because, unlike “The Pocket Fisherman,” they integrated with and boosted our self-image. The ability to stop whatever you’re doing and cast a line for trout… that will never say “Look at me” the way taking a call in the middle of a conversation does. Sure, we needed cell phones for business. Because before cell phones, there was obviously no business being conducted in America. Ask any old timer and they’ll tell you that the 1970s were great because your boss couldn’t reach you at Studio 54.
That we needed a law to tell us we were dangerous dialing a phone and simultaneously driving a car 55 miles an hour will forever stand as a portrait of common sense in our lifetime. But now that it’s happened, we must also face the collateral damage. I’m referring of course to Dad and Mom walking around the mall with Bluetooth headsets stuck in their ears. Shields up: Here come the Robo-People.
I would argue that human behavior is changing when large numbers of people commit to wearing an electronic appliance like jewelry. Much has been written about the socially isolating aspects of iPods. But wanting to hear music is, at some level, a cultural event. Keeping your ear corked with a phone headset as you pick out produce in the grocery store feels like something happening in a psychological realm. “I must maintain wireless contact with the world as I select artichokes!” I distinctly remember my own mother groaning if the phone rang while she was baking cookies.
What is it exactly that we fear we’ll miss? One would almost have to believe that life itself was nothing but a string of consecutive worst-case scenarios requiring immediate notification. True, next week your bank might fail during the same half-hour that American forces invade Iran. But can’t you fetch some produce without having to know the instant that those things happen? Or that your pants are ready at the tailor…?
What effect does it have on children knowing that parents pay the same or more attention to continuous phone contact as they do to them? This will be countered immediately by those who claim cell phones are fantastic for supervising your youngsters. Agreed, it’s great to know where the kids are. It might also be great to pull the headset out of your ear and really connect with your kids in an effort to establish a certain amount of trust. My own father might have been preoccupied with his job and career. But when he wanted to impart a lesson or put down the law or just do some parenting, he never sent me a BlackBerry e-mail about it.
Early reports indicate that there weren’t as many citations for talking and driving as was anticipated during the first days the new cell phone law took effect. That’s great, but with each new development in wireless communication (assuming that iPhone system crashes are further and further apart…) there is more temptation to lose ourselves in our devices and even be defined by them while life itself struggles to get our attention. Technology enhances connectivity, but it simultaneously builds an empire of “Me.” If not, why are all my friends insisting that I view their FaceBook site? I’d love to see some recent pictures of your kids. But first, tell me what your kids were doing yesterday while you were uploading their pixels to your site.