September 26th, 2006


Hell phone

As a kind of weird "technology correspondent without portfolio" at Wired News, one of the things I enjoy doing is turning my carte blanche into a "license to ill". I love to rip into a whole area of tech and tell the world it's rubbish. I've already done this with iPods, computer keyboards, dead formats, muzak, and MySpace. This week, it's the turn of cell phones.

My latest Wired piece -- Cell Phones? Hell Phones! -- puts the case against the gadgets in typically Presbyterian manner, declaring them an invention of the devil. These "interrupting machines" are unhealthy, raising stress levels. They make us impolite, encouraging us to turn our backs on people who are physically present. They shrink our world down to a small circle of friends, they make us into flakes who never make or keep firm appointments, they encourage "flexitime" and "auctioning" (I'm only here until a better offer comes in). Cell phones should widen our world, just as internet-connected computers and jet planes do. Instead they shrink it down, like cars do. Cell phones are a local technology suited to short trips. Oh, and texting is the worst way to write ever.

That's my scattershot argument against the "hell phone". I balance it at the end of my piece with a description of a visit to a branch of Bic Camera in Osaka earlier this year in which I realized that the keitais on display were "the stars of the store", far outstripping cameras, computers and other gadgets in terms of attractiveness, ingenuity and desirability. I'm not immune to the glamour of cell phones. After all, I carried one around with me for ten years -- usually the latest, snazziest, all-singing, all dancing model -- between 1993 and 2003. At one point I had three different cell phones which I used in three different cities: London, New York, and Tokyo.

The fact that I don't have a cell phone now probably points to an imbalance in my life: I'm oriented too much towards the global, too little towards the local. In fact, hunched over my laptop all day, I'm even less connected to "the people on the bus" than someone merely talking on a cell phone would be. My back is much more massively turned on Berlin than the back of someone merely jabbering on a "handy" (as they're called here). Hell, I don't even speak my fellow citizens' language! So it's rather a case of the pot calling the kettle black... on a plan with plenty of free minutes, hopefully.

But that doesn't change the way I feel. A world of laptops and jet planes, yes, that's my world. A world of cars and cell phones, no, that's theirs. And what I hate more than anything is having to sit there like a cabbage while a friend talks to a friend on a cell phone. Especially when we're in the middle of quality time arranged by means of the laptop, face-to-face time made possible by the jet plane. It's like the local came along and slapped the global in the face.

I'm probably just a very, very jealous person, and I probably have some major interpersonal issues to work out. But for the time being, I'm going to blame the technology.