Saturday, December 8, 2012

# 27 Long Distance Call

    It's 1982, I'm living in the old Ottawa neighbourhood called The Glebe. (It always makes me think of a little town in the middle of the city.) During the 60s the hippies (Helping In Producing Peaceful Individual Existence) lived in the aging area and the ones who stayed in school became Yuppies (Young Upwardly-Mobile Professionals). So, by the 80s they are buying up properties and transforming the hundred year old suburb into a trendy neighbourhood.There are natural food stores, clothing stores, specialty shops and many ethnic restaurants with outdoor patios. On this summer afternoon I leave my apartment on Second and the Canal and walk up to Bank Street where I meet friends for drinks. 

    So, I get there and beside our table is a small group of people in office dress doing lunch. One of the guys is talking on what looks like a regular house phone, but it is connected with a curly cord to something the size of a cereal box.  With some curiosity I lean over to my friend and ask, "What is that thing?" I thought it might be a C.B. (Citizens Band Radio) or some variation, but no, she leans back toward me and says, "It's a cell phone." I said "Ohhh." I have been hearing about these things more often lately, but I've never seen one in person.

    I have to admit that I am interested in this gadget and continue to ask questions in a near whisper. I inquire why he carries it to the restaurant and I am told it's probably used for work. This makes sense to me, but this guy is speaking into the phone with a volume greater than the other patrons, like he wants to be heard. So, we are forced into eavesdropping; I can't help hear that he is talking to someone about the upcoming weekend at the cottage.

    Later I think, I can see the point of having a cellphone for work, that use makes sense. However, I had a job once where I carried a pager (remember those?) with me everyday. I grew to hate the thing after it went off while I was in a public washroom, sitting on the throne. Yes, I realize you didn't need to know that part. Anyway, similar to that pager, I thought of the cellphone as like a leash a boss controlled.

    If my memory serves me well, in 1982, cellphones are not a significant part of the mainstream culture, but they are headed in that direction. I regularly listen to conversations in the media and with friends about the annoyance the users create in public spaces. I don't have many of these experiences, but I certainly hear about them. I conclude that I will not buy one as they are too clunky, and besides, I can't think of anyone I want to stay in touch with that badly.

   So, flash forward fifteen years and these communication devices are gaining popularity outside the business community, and are wiggling their way into the mainstream domestic population. They are about the size of a hot dog in an over sized bun and I have just purchased my first one. It has a flexible aerial, and a nylon belt case so I can be at the ready for all important communication. I am excited to have this new toy and call everyone I know to touch base. A lot of people are doing the same thing with the trendy new status symbol so I get return calls! People (mostly men) sit around tables in bars showing each other their new phones. (Another white collar phallic symbol.) "Have you seen my new Nokia, my Motorola my New Telephone!" (In retrospect, it sounds silly.)  Back then, just having a cell phone advertises that you are 'connected!'.  However, after I call everyone and they call me, I discover that there isn't anything new to talk about when we meet face to face. The novelty wears off, the phone sits dormant, but the monthly bills continue. 

    So, as they invade our lives, the annoying problem of people without a handle on appropriate phone behaviours spreads. At this time there is no benchmark in society for cellphone etiquette, so no one really knows what to do about the annoyance. After some concerted reflection, I develop an understanding of the problem:

    When normal people talk with someone face to face, they adjust their voice volume and use body language during the conversation. So, two people can have a fairly private verbal interaction in a crowd and maintain some sense of privacy. This is really difficult to do when you are conversing in public with a phone; there are no visual cues to offer guidance. Some people raise their voices when speaking on their phone, like they aren't sure if the recipient is listening. Consequently, as more people start dialing up in public, a new code of behaviour is needed. I remember these days well, a phone would go off in every imaginable public place and it had to be answered!

    As an example, in 1997, and I am standing in line at my bank (I haven't done that in years!), and there is this guy in front of me, talking on his phone. He is so loud, I am forced into eavesdropping on his conversation. It's his wife, maybe his mother, no, probably his wife. He is telling her that he is "...standing in the line at the bank." and he "..will go to the grocery store when I'm done."  Then, his number comes up, as does mine and he says "Just hang on, I have to see the teller."  Five minutes later we end up leaving the bank at the same time; he is beside me now, still talking. He says, "OK, I'm leaving the bank now." We both enter the grocery store and go our separate ways.

    A few minutes later I am in the cereal isle and it turns out this same guy is there too. He is still on his phone. He is staring at the two flavours of Cheerios, and talking like there is no one is in the room. I too am thinking Cheerios and so I'm right beside him. He says, "Which kind should I get? The Honey-nut or Regular?" This dinglepuss with his illusion of privacy is getting on my nerves. I turn to him and with a voice of reason I politely chime in, "Why not buy both, they're on sale for only $2.99 this week?" I grab a box of Shreddies and leave the scene. He was oblivious to the fact that I was trapped in his petty conversation for the last twenty minutes. (What was his reaction interjection? I don't know.)

    By 2000, cellphones haven't completely taken over the domestic market, but they are well on their way. Many adults who don't really need a phone owned one, and often they justified their social status "want" with the word "need".  The phone size is shrinking though, but they are still relatively expensive to own and without a plan. However, the price is coming down and it is only a matter of time before kids get them for Christmas and birthdays. (I always felt kids and seniors are the most appropriate people to own cellphones as both have lots of time to socialize.) Then, parents start buying them for their kids, justifying the expense as a "safety issue". Many kids see gesture as a leash to mom and either turn it off or ignore the call from her, unless they need to be picked up somewhere.

    One morning, I'm doing my work commute. As I get closer to the school, I notice two of my grade ten girls walking together. They are both laughing and talking on their respective phones. Later that morning I mention that I saw them walking to school together and "Who were you talking to?" They giggle and point at each other.  I laugh too and ask how that all came to be. Get this: they call each other from the house, meet at the corner like they do every morning and just keep talking to each other, all the way to school. Enough said!

    Teachers are always battling interruptions to the learning process, and trust me, there are A LOT of them. For most teachers, modern cellphones and all their supernatural abilities have officially been added to the distraction list. Adding to the problem is a weak policy on dealing with these gadgets in the school and classroom. The government has expressed support for the use of phones in the classroom which has infuriated most classroom teachers. I suspect the governments position is more about economics than consideration for the people in the trenches. Their position is probably an effort to get away from the: purchase of expensive computers, software, printers, and the maintenance that goes with the purchase. However, with this position, they open a door that we are desperately trying to close. I'm in favour of limited use of the phones in the classroom, but I also realize that we need an enforceable policy on controlling them.

    I'm not suppose to do it, but I take between three and five phones away from students every class, everyday. I can be sitting at my desk, glance up and tell by their body language that they are "texting". They hide the phone under their book, under the desk, behind a book or quickly slide it out of their pocket. Before the touch screens became popular, many kids knew the feel of the keyboard and would text in their pocket. Now, I just patiently stick my open hand out and they reluctantly offer over the phone. I put them on my desk and they pick them up at the end of class, no words are exchanged. Sometimes, I have a confrontation with a student who doesn't want to fork it over and I just ask that they leave the room and go text somewhere else.

   From my vantage point, cell phones have come a long way since that first one in 1982. They are much smaller than the first one I saw in that restaurant. Modern cellphones have eliminated the need for: a land line, a camera, a music player, a calculator, a watch, an alarm, even the need to call most people, most people just text.

  The social expectations surrounding them has also progressed. Theaters and other public spaces formally ask patrons to turn off their phones and for the most part, the requests are respected. Fortunately, there is at least one generation who subscribe to some kind of cellphone etiquette. I still think the worse offenders are people now in their thirties because they were really never taught any of the unwritten rules on public usage.

    Last year, I was at a retirement party and noticed all these 30 somethings sitting by the wall texting. Heads down, thumbs blazing, oblivious to anyone or anything around them. A fellow guest said to me, "If they are so unhappy here, why don't they just leave and go to their friends place"? I psychologized that, "Maybe it might be more about feeling socially uncomfortable and withdrawing into their phone....."  Of course, we then had to discuss the topics about, how: texting discourages conversation, they are ruining grammar...  They keep everyone locked within their own world.... I do think one of the points expressed in that conversation carries some truth though. When you are at a social event and you are withdrawn into your phone, you are saying, "I have a social circle outside of the one I am participating in right now and that social circle warrants me ignoring the current one."  Or "I'm just not into you enough to participate in any social interaction with you now." It might be a form of social retardation, or maybe it's just rude, who knows!

    I carry a phone with me at all times now, it has become a fixture in my life. Now, if I am talking to someone and they interrupt our conversation to check or send a text, I just turn and walk away. I spend too much of my day fighting for air time, I don't need the hassle. 

   There are new developments in the cellphone forecast which are here now, but not completely integrated yet.  It's the Phablet. This is not only a new word for our language, but also signals a new device and I think the end of personal computers, e-readers, mp3 players, and tablets. The Phablets are like a large smart phone and a small tablet.  I see more and more of them around and I hope to get one soon.  I wonder if that guy I saw in the restaurant back in 1982 has one yet.