The Cellular Telephone and its Discontents

When I am a pedestrian I am frequently astonished by the carelessness and selfishness of drivers. When I am driving I am frequently astonished by the carelessness and selfishness of pedestrians. Equally astonishing, of course, is the way I can change the behavior of people so profoundly by the mere act of getting in or out of a car.

So it is with cellphones. When I am using one myself, they are the most marvelous, indispensable instruments. Indeed, I have difficulty in remembering what life was like before them, or even whether life was possible without them. Separated from my cellphone I become anxious and slightly fractious, as if I might be missing a life-changing opportunity. But when other people use cellphones, particularly in a confined space, I am appalled by the sheer banality that they seem to encourage, and the egotism of those who do not realize that others may not wish to overhear what they are saying. Progress reports on the approach of a train to a suburban station, for example, are not of transcendent interest. I have even seen a man grab a phone in exasperation from a passenger and throw it out of the window.

So when I read an epidemiological study in this week’s British Medical Journal that cellphones do not cause brain tumors, as some alarmists have suggested, my reaction was ambiguous. Of course I was pleased that my own use of them put me at no extra risk; on the other hand, a good-going health scare might have cut down on the sum total of banality that I overhear nowadays practically everywhere I go. It would improve the quality of communication between human beings.

The study was conducted in Denmark, and in a way is a rather chilling reminder of how far modern information technology is now able to track people: if Nietzsche were alive today, he would say that it was privacy, not God, that was dead.