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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.

The authors of the study compared the incidence of brain tumor in 358,403 Danish subscribers to cellphones with that of people of the same age who did not subscribe. There was no increase in such tumors among subscribers, and just as importantly there was no evidence of a dose-response curve among them: that is to say, a higher rate of tumor development the longer people had subscribed.

There were minor limitations to the study; for example it was assumed that subscribers used phones and non-subscribers did not, so that some people might have been wrongly classified. But this is unlikely to have affected the result very seriously.

It is impossible to prove a negative conclusively, of course, and cellphones have been in widespread use only for twenty years. There are some cancers whose latency -- the period between exposure to cause and the development of the tumor -- is longer than twenty years. It is possible, therefore, that an association will appear one day between the use of cellphones and the development of brain tumor; so far, however, such an association has not appeared, and in Sweden, where nearly 90 per cent of the population has had a cellphone from a very early stage of the technology, national rates of brain tumor have not risen.

Just because cellphones do not harm brains physically, however, does not mean that they do not do other forms of harm. So I say to users of cellphones: improve the average quality of human communication, do not make that call.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)