Jewish World Review Dec. 28, 2000 / 2 Teves, 5761
The talk of 2000? It's right there in
AS THE YEAR comes to an end, I think we can all
agree that the most significant story of the last 12
months was. . . .
No, no -- not that one.
The presidential election was an interesting story.
But for true significance, the biggest story was one that never earned a banner
headline and never led a newscast.
It's a story you have witnessed firsthand every day -- as you walk down the
street, as you prepare to board an airplane, as you wait for a table in a
restaurant, as you ride on a commuter train.
You usually hear it before you see it.
It is represented by the sound of someone talking loudly in your vicinity, as if
you are not there. Sometimes the person seems to be talking into thin air, until
you look closely.
2000 was the year when the cellular-phone revolution crossed that invisible
line and went from the up-and-coming to the mainstream. The cell-phone
phenomenon has been picking up strength for years, and in the last few years
of the 1990s it seemed inescapable. But there comes a time when saturation
is reached -- when it occurs to a society that things have changed forever,
and that there will be no going back. This is what happened this year -- for
better or for worse, mostly for worse.
A similar moment in our country's history came in the early- to mid-1950s,
with television. One day television was regarded as a machine that some
people had -- at first they were usually wealthy people -- and then, with no
public announcement that the world had just been transformed for eternity,
television was something that everyone had. The days of back yard
conversations, of families assuming that dinnertime meant everyone at the
dinner table, of people planning their evenings around reading books or
magazines . . . all of that was altered. Few things that occurred during the '50s
had as far-reaching an effect -- but because it happened gradually, it never
seemed like news on a particular day. One night the saturation point was
reached -- and America was never the same.
That's what happened in 2000 with cell phones -- and the news is not
Ours has not been a particularly silent society for many years -- noise is all
around us, in many forms, and we have taught ourselves to live with that. But
we have assumed certain things about zones of privacy in our immediate
personal vicinity. A stranger could always come up to talk to you, of course
-- there was always a chance that someone could step up and start blabbing
But at least the stranger, however unwelcome, was talking to you. What has
changed -- and no one could have predicted this -- is that people, because of
the cell phone revolution, feel quite comfortable standing within inches of you
and talking loudly to someone who isn't you -- who isn't even there.
It's surprising just how grating this can be. You're on a street corner, and
someone booms out words that you can hear quite distinctly: If the person
were talking to you, you'd be tempted to tell him that he doesn't have to
speak so loudly. But he has no interest in you -- you are merely furniture in
his world. It's worse than an unwanted tirade directed at you -- it's an
unwanted tirade that you have to be a part of, while at the same time not
being a part of it at all.
The little hang-down-wire microphones that make it possible for people to do
this without holding a phone to their ears provides more convenience for them
-- and thus more annoyance for everyone around them. Had, 20 years ago,
some social theoretician realized this was coming, perhaps steps could have
been taken to head it off. But who ever guessed we would all have to deal
with something like this: with the equivalent of invisible pay phones being
mounted within inches of us everywhere we go, invisible pay phones that are
available for use by anyone who wants to bellow into them? The idea of being
able to communicate anywhere and any time sounded sort of nice -- because
the assumption was that it applied to us, not to the guy three inches from us.
No one thought of the downside. No one thought that life would turn into
voices in our ears at the most unexpected moments -- voices we don't want,
voices we didn't invite, voices we can't do a thing about.
Pass a law against it, you say? Dream on. You might as well try to pass a law
against television. Too late. 2000 is ending -- and with it goes the last refuge
of the wistful promise of quiet times in public places. "You talkin' to me?"
Even that phrase has become meaningless. Not the talkin' part. The me
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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©1999, Tribune Media Services