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Jewish World Review Dec. 28, 2000 / 2 Teves, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The talk of 2000? It's right there in your hand -- 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 altogether happy.

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 away.

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 part.

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


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