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Jewish World Review May 2, 2000 / 27 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports


There they go, just a-yappin' down the street . . . -- NEW YORK Question: When did a sign of insanity become a sign of status and importance?

Answer: Oh, right about now.

This thought occurred the other afternoon as I saw a man walking along Park Avenue talking away to himself. I mean, jabbering-- this guy was walking down the street having the most animated conversation you could imagine. He was emphasizing words, he was laughing, he was giving orders.

Was he nuts? Did he look as if he might be crazed?

No-- he looked like an affluent, influential executive. Expensive suit, highly polished shoes...the only thing that made it seem that he was out of his mind was the fact that he was talking a mile a minute to no one.

But the little black wire that hung down from his ear, just past his mouth, was the tipoff.

Perhaps you have seen the skinny little wires. They are the newest advance in communications-- the sight of them is beginning to replace the sight of people holding cell phones to their ears.

They work, I am told, like this. You place a small plug into your ear. You snake a connecting cord to a cellular phone you carry in your pocket or wear on your belt. From the earpiece, the skinny black wire dangles past your mouth. There is a tiny microphone built into the wire. walk along the street, hands free, yakking away. Some of the phones have voice-activated dialing, so you don't have to reach into your pocket to dial-- you are always in contact with the rest of the world. It's pretty eerie-- the sight of people talking at top speed, with no one in the vicinity as the intended recipients of their words.

A check of several cellular telephone stores indicated that these skinny-wire devices have been on the market for some time now, although only in recent months have they picked up in popularity. Phone-store employees say that some people like the skinny wires because their hands are free when they are driving and talking; others say there is a prestige factor built in-- business people think it looks cool to be walking along and talking, without having a phone in their hands; still others think it is a prudent health decision.

For several years now, there has been debate over whether cellular phones pose the potential threat of releasing radiation into the heads of people who constantly use them. A recent story in the New York Daily News said: "Although the jury is still out on whether mobile phones of any variety can cause brain damage, many experts contend they pose a risk for cancer, memory loss and psychological disturbances."

Now...without taking any position on the health risks of cell phones, it is possible to say that the skinny-wire devices definitely have a connection with psychological disturbances-- and it has nothing to do with radiation.

You can make the case that our new national obsession with being in touch every second of the day is itself a sign of a societal psychological disturbance. We have willingly given up the concept of down time, of quiet moments-- and have replaced periods of rest with constant talk, ceaseless checking-in. From airplanes to automobiles to ballgames to-- now-- a stroll through the city, we have chosen not to be where we physically stand or sit, but instead to link up with voices somewhere else.

No one has made us do it; we have arrived at this choice on our own. The skinny wires are the penultimate step; the only communication horizon beyond this is the day when surgeons implant telephone devices into people's brains and ears, so that business executives can link up with associates around the world just by thinking of who they want to talk to, then speaking aloud.

(One person I saw wearing the skinny telephone wire and yapping into the air was a man I wrote about here recently: Goldberg, the professional wrestler, whom I met on a trip to Las Vegas. I was going to question him about why he felt the need to talk into the skinny wire, but then I thought: Nah. This is not a fellow it's worth offending over his telephone habits. Let him blab. The downside of kidding him about it is not worth it.)

So where is all of this heading?

Probably where it has been heading for years. With millions upon millions of people in nonstop contact, the real sign of success for a person will be if he is not reachable at all. The guy with the skinny wire will not rule the world; instead, the guy you can't phone, the guy you have to write a letter to, will be on top of the universe. Power? It will be found in the sounds of silence.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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