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GP 11 July 2007: Don't Hang Up

Don’t hang up (No No)
Oh don't you do it now don't hang up (No No)
Don't hang up like you always do
I know you think our love is true
I'll explain the facts to you don't hang up
Give me a chance or our romance is through
Don't hang up, oh don’t you do it now, don’t hang up”

Don’t Hang Up.  Once upon a time there was a photographer out in New Jersey who ran his business out of his house.  Oft as not he was away on assignment, and his answering machine picked up random calls.  You rang, and a few moments later you were greeted by the Orlons, some rock and roll greats, pleading with you not to hang up.  Then photographer Bob requested that you leave a message, your name, and a number, hoping perhaps for tons of business, more often looking for a good chat.

Life, incidentally, tended to hang up on the Orlons, who were decimated by cancer, respiratory disease, gun-wielding intruders, and a crummy record company.

Cell Phone.  Since that time, the cellphone has taken over our civilization, and it has transformed us far more than the personal computer, reaching into every crevice of our existence, even more so now that it is hooked up to Blackberries and email.  It is the perfect metaphor as well for modern technology, since we cannot tell whether it has improved or destroyed our lives.  Digital intrusions—the personal computer, Nintendo, over-gadgeted cell phones—have made robots out of many, ciphers only stimulated by random bits of information that are blowin’ in the wind.

Eger Beaver. A marvelous fellow out at San Diego State University named John Eger, who is a professor of communications and emperor of the smart communities movement and who advised Presidents Nixon and Ford, thinks phones have enabled us and made us smarter.  He finds that the cell phone is a tool of democratization, because it lets all the news creep around the community and then the globe even in dictatorships, and  it has given the poor in developing nations a chance to join the global marketplace.  “Perhaps more important, cell phone use in even the world’s poorest nations is experiencing double-digit growth.”  He, as the Economist, believes mobile phones, which eliminate the need for intricate land line networks, are remaking the world, “reducing transaction costs, broadening trade networks and reducing the need to travel.”  Eger thinks the digital, wired world as exemplified by Singapore makes us global, transparent, agile, more knowledgeable, and richer.

Smarter.  Maybe.  We take the view that the impact of cell phones is pretty analogous to that of TV.  We can all remember Omnibus and Ed Murrow, but notice that neither high culture nor evenhanded thoughtful journalism decorate the airwaves today.  And there’s no Newton Minow at the FCC to push us back uphill.  TV and cell phones had the potential to make a much better world, but instead, seem to have gorged it with mediocrity.  They promised to make us gods, but we managed to use them to make ourselves even more mortal.  Our many readers tend to agree with this more sober view.

Please Hold.  Phones combined with companies that don’t properly answer their phones have contrived to make consumers into cynics and to extract surcharges out of poorly served customers.  Bill Heavey,  a pensman at Field and Stream, has chronicled the trials of a hunter in pursuit of a deer rifle:

Ah, Recorded Lady, you have returned after a short interval of toothless smooth jazz.  You explain that my long hold time is due to “an unusually heavy volume of calls.” And yet this is the only kind of volume of calls your company experiences.  You assure me that, even now, an army of customer-service representatives is engaged in hand-to-hand combat over the privilege of serving me.  Meanwhile, exciting news!   Did I know that I can register for a chance to win $10,000 just by signing up for DSL service?  Actually, Recorded Lady, I do my lottery playing at 7-Eleven, just like everybody else.

You underestimate me, Recorded Lady.  I do not choose to try my call later, when hold times may be reduced.  I am a Heavey, of Irish extraction, eldest son of my father, and cheap to the bone.  Notice that I do not say “thrifty,” Recorded Lady.  Thrifty is for dabblers and dilettantes.  Among my people, cheapness is not a hobby but a vocation.

As Heavey’s wit makes clear, phone systems and cell phones have often become an impediment to commerce.  Lazy companies do not answer their phones, and ‘customer service’ becomes the dominant oxymoron of our new service economy.

For All the World to Hear.  The best thing about Danny Meyer’s restaurants in New York City, average bistros with high falutin’ packaging, is that the owner early on banned cell phone use.  They—cell phones—have become a tool of torture in public places, much more noxious than second-hand smoke.  They are more ubiquitous than the noisy TVs now tucked into the bars of too many restaurants.  Unwilling eavesdroppers to the motor mouths around us, we learn just how trivial the vox populi has become.

One of our readers in California wine country, where we had formerly hoped everything was laid back and gentle, writes to tell us of cell phone warfare:

We were at a wine tasting dinner in a very fine restaurant in a private room with about 30 people. The wine master from a California winery was speaking about the wines and a man at a nearby table took not one, but three calls during the talk. He remained at his table and spoke in a normal tone competing with the speaker. Finally, on the third call my husband spoke up and asked him to take his calls in the hall. The man jumped from his chair, called my husband an asshole and threw his cell phone at our table. It landed between my husband's feet and he tossed it aside. The man marched over, stood in my husband's face and shouted, “Do you want to take this outside?” The maitr’de and another guest stepped between them and got the man to sit down. Other guests then started berating the “talker” and he jumped back up and started yelling at an elderly woman (about 75 or so) and then turned to another guest who was telling him to sit down and asked him to “take this outside.” Finally the wine master got everyone to calm down, then berated the “talker,” too. The talker remained at his table the rest of the night, except to come over near our table when we all went out on a break to try to find his cell phone.

Jamming.  There has been a counter reaction to bad phone systems, rudeness, hopeless corporate phone behavior, bad equipment, and phone drivel.  The Harrow Group, yet another firm that likes to think about technology in our lives, has followed, with concern, the efforts of the French to curb cell phone pollution with transmitters, a little like the old Soviet attempts to block out the Voice of America.  Apparently 85% of the French public supports such efforts, and there is something similar afoot in Ireland.  Harrow has qualms about all jamming, as might be expected from someone whose toast is slathered with electrons and who makes a living from technology.  The Harrowites would be without a job if phone signals got blocked willy nilly.  But it is a nice dream to think we might get some relief from cell phones gone amuck, however it is achieved.

The St. Petersburg Incident.  As we have said on the Global Province, most recently in “The Cost of Things,” cell phone companies, particularly in the United States, do not operate very well, offering spotty connections, poor headsets, and immensely overpriced service.  One of our interns discovered to his chagrin that he could call home to Indiana more cheaply from Munich, Germany than from the Southeastern United States.

Years ago Judge Greene broke up AT&T, thinking the consumer would benefit from competitive phone service.  Since then, universal phone service and modestly benign regulation in the United States have fallen apart.  Of course, we have not gotten competition: in cell phones, we essentially have 2 big providers.  Instead of regulated monopoly, we now have unregulated super- monopolies.  It is arguable that this kind of market dominance is shaving points off our gross national product, because our calls cost too darn much, the system is unreliable, and, worst of all, the network is not neatly meshed with other systems around the world.

In June a party of affluents set out from the United States to enjoy the onetime capital of Russia-- St. Petersburg.  Addicted to their phones, the celebrants tried to call home on their Nokias, Samsungs, and Motorolas both to do some business and to check on family.  Without success.  But one smart chap who had stopped off in London, bought an ‘unlocked’ cheap phone set there, installed a European chip or card, and reached Texas from the Astoria Hotel without a problem.  The call was so good that the executive in Texas thought his caller was a few blocks away.  Mobile phone companies in the U.S. are out of sync with the globe.  Not a good sign.

The Mobile Connection.  Who knows whether the mobile phone is a boon or a bane for society.  As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.  What is very clear to us is that its educational and economic promise is not being realized in the United States because our governors have failed to enjoin bad practices and to cajole the industry so that it does better.  It is unacceptable, for instance, that our major carriers are using two different technical standards, simply because nobody has told them to get their act together.  We cannot over-estimate the deleterious consequences of not getting our infrastructure right.  If we can’t get it right, then surely more and more of us will hang up.

As usual, there’s an academic out there who has tried to look at the mobile with sort of a balanced eye, but since he lives in an ivory tower in Norway, he veers to head-in-the-clouds optimism.  We would suggest you take a look at Rich Ling’s (that’s ting a ling) Mobile Connection on Ubiquity, where you can read an excerpt from his book as well as a review.  At its best, it does suggest that human behavior has been forever altered by mobile’s presence, as citizens everywhere have conversations on the run.

P.S.  If phone are driving you crazy, consult the Irish Mental Health Hotline.  There’s an answer there for what ails you. 

P.P.S.  Some quotes to remember: “Most people have to talk so they won’t hear” -Mary Sarton.  “Talk is cheap, except when Congress does it.” -Cullen Hightower.  The telephone is “an invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” -Ambrose Bierce.  “The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts shorts the most weighty observations, has a romance of its own.” -Virginia Woolf.  “I’ve suffered from all of the hang-ups known, and none is as bad as the telephone.” -Richard Armour 

P.P.P.S.  Good Night, and Good Luck, a recent movie about Edward R. Murrow, reminds us what it was like to live in an age of connected, intelligent discourse.  The video store must be renting it now, and it merits a look and a listen. 

P.P.P.P.S. Recently Verizon Wireless took 5 days to replace a defective Motorola phone.  Then its clerks demanded that the customer take the bad phone to Fed Ex for return to Verizon’s Depot in Fort Worth.  Verizon appears to outsource replacement activity to something called “New Breed Corp.”  Even this feckless service surpasses Cingular, which has refused to replace defective equipment in days gone by. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Danny Meyer does circulate a very well written newsletter dealing with his restaurants and other matters.  It is his best serving.


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