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The cell phone cell

Published on: April 22, 2010


mitch02Let’s see a show of hands. Who here has a cell phone? Yeah, that’s right, raise your hand if you have a cell phone. Hmmm…everyone? No, wait — the little toddler in the back doesn’t have one. Oh, I guess she is raising her hand. A short, stubby little hand holding a Blackberry.


Mitch Traphagen photo

There is no headline in saying that cell phones have completely infiltrated everyday life. A few years ago while on the road for a travel series, my Blackberry died. It refused to do anything. Suddenly I was cut off from the world. I was supposed to be working (of sorts) and it wasn’t comfortable. How would anyone get a hold of me? How would I get my email the instant it came in? All of my questions were largely rhetorical as the solution to my woes was 30 minutes away at the nearest AT&T store. But it did reveal how dependent I am on them.
Clearly, I am living my life in a cell phone cell. As cells go, I’ve seen worse but still — is the cell phone freeing me or enslaving me?
I’m ashamed to admit that I carry two phones on my belt. Yes, I look like an idiot. I have an iPhone for personal use and a Blackberry for an outside job responsibility. That job requires a Blackberry and only a Blackberry. So I carry them both and have them set to vibrate and never know which one is actually going off when my belt starts to buzz. Worse, I am now so accustomed to it that I swear I experience phantom belt buzzing if neither phone goes off for a while. I feel the phantom buzz, look at one phone, then the other and see nothing.
How pathetic is that?
When I was growing up in the 1970s, my best friend’s dad worked for Centel Telephone Company and he had a phone in his car. It wasn’t really a phone as we know it today, it was basically a huge radio with an old-fashioned telephone handset wired to it. There were no push buttons — you had to first call a radio operator who would then patch your call through to a landline. As kids, we thought it was so cool when Jon’s dad would pull into the driveway of a friend and let us call him. Added to the cool factor was Rock Hudson. About that same time, Rock frequently used the same kind of car phone in his television series “MacMillan & Wife” (if you remember that, say “hi” to your grandchildren for me).
I got my first cell phone in 1992 at the age of 29. I’m sure I told myself that I was involved in enough important things in life to justify purchasing it but the reality was I thought it was cool to be able to stand on a street corner (with no pay phone in sight!) to make a call. And it only made calls; I couldn’t surf the web on it (there was no web) or check Facebook (ditto) or even play a simple game. For that matter, I couldn’t clip it to my belt or stuff it into my pocket because it was the size and weight of a brick. When I wasn’t using it, which was most of the time due to how expensive it was to use, I kept it in my briefcase.
Hardly anyone I knew had a cell phone back then. Somehow, as a society, we managed to survive without having instantaneous and continuous access to our friends, spouses, children and email.
Over the next few years, cell phones became smaller and cooler. And, you could actually leave the city limits (for the most part) and still make a call. The flood gates had opened and even people who didn’t carry briefcases started to use them. For that matter, it seemed as though fewer people even carried briefcases — apparently they didn’t need them once the gigantic brick-sized cell phones turned into something they could clip to a belt.
It was then that I stopped using a cell phone — and it was the happiest time of my adult life. My wife and I set sail for the Bahamas and beyond and managed to survive without once using a cell phone. We had a marine band radio capable of reaching friends in Florida and there were pay phones on every Bahamian island we visited. A few months after we left, we added the ability to send and receive emails through our radio. We could only send very short emails and we could only check it once or twice a day but to me it was even more cool than anything Rock Hudson had done. We could send emails while under sail in the Atlantic Ocean. That was enough for us. In the months we were gone, I don’t remember wishing we had a cell phone. We didn’t even consider it.
But then we returned to Florida and suddenly, we had to be connected to everyone and everything. In all likelihood, except for the short time my Blackberry up and died, I have never since been without a cell phone. And now I carry two of them.
I wonder if our time sailing was the last time I will be without one. During my sailing trip last year from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay, I used my phone even well offshore. Not to make calls so much but I could use the phone to connect to the web through my navigation computer and pull satellite images of precisely where I was at the moment from Google Earth. I could then fire off an email (again through the phone) to my wife that would show her exactly where I was. Rock could not have envisioned something that cool. But still, it was only just cool. People have been plying those waters for centuries without using cell phones and Google Earth.
I am not that important. I don’t hold the keys to the mysteries of the universe nor am I so critical to the operation of the Observer News that I must maintain 24/7 accessibility. Also, children have grown up for millennia without the ability to call or text their friends or their parents. We all managed to survive the ordeal of not being able to instantly update our friends about what we had for lunch via Facebook Mobile.
So why do we do it?
Now I know there are a few hold-outs who will scoff at this column, but the truth is just about everyone on this planet carries a cell phone. According to the International Telecommunication Union, cell phone subscriptions reached 4.6 billion by the end of last year. In one sense that is an amazing technological and human achievement. Never before in human history could someone in Riverview, Florida pick up their phone and dial the number for the one cell phone shared among the inhabitants of the Ouargaye, Burkina Faso in West Africa. But you could today.
On the other side of that coin, however, have cell phones become so ingrained into our lives that they are now nearly as indispensable as oxygen to us? Would you feel off-kilter or somehow less than whole should the battery of your phone die — or if it should just stop working somewhere in the middle of nowhere? Have we imprisoned ourselves into a cell phone cell?
Could you turn your cell phone off for a week? If so, email me — I want to hear about it. In fact, I’d probably write a story about it because today, that could very well make for a headline. My email is and yes, I’ll get your message on my iPhone.