Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can you hear me still?

As cellphone users go, I’m the equivalent of a stuffed animal—the silent part, of course, not the cute cuddliness. That's how seldomly I use the phone. But having been born without the ability to tune out ambient sound, I can’t help but notice that many, many more words are being spoken into cellphones than before these products became ubiquitous. Is more actually being said? That’s for another blog.

What I find most interesting is that after years of work by manufacturers to implant a cellphone into every hand, other manufacturers are working very hard to get people talking on these devices to shut up and give the rest of us a break.

The product in question, a cellphone jammer, had served merely as an object of my fantasies for years before the other day, when I read about it in The Wall Street Journal. The columnist described his friend, Philip, as “one of the most civilized and heroic people I know.” But it seems one person’s right to speak loudly into a cellphone confronted, once too many, Philip’s right to his private thoughts. So after politely requesting that a person lower his voice, Philip’s next step was to reach into his pocket. To press a button that sent a scrambling frequency. To deliver justice to a lawless band.

I could have used one of these devices during my return from one particular business trip to Washington, DC. Having decided to return by train, I'd actually been looking forward to taking Amtrak again. I settled in to enjoy the ride, feeling my eyelids growing heavy. Until, that is, a few minutes after the train left Washington’s Union Station. When the fellow across from me pulled out his phone, called a friend and talked about absolutely nothing that needed saying…for 250 miles.

Let’s face it: Whenever we hear someone talking on a phone within earshot (okay, maybe it’s just me), we make judgments. We decide whether this side of the conversation is of a topic, volume and pitch we consider reasonable for public airing. If so, some of us have a chance to tune it out. If not, we might well imagine someone, anyone, grabbing the phone out of the offender’s hand, throwing it to the ground and stomping it to pieces. Other than the phone’s owner, who wouldn’t cheer?

On one hand, I understand why cellphone jammers are typically illegal except for, say, the military and police. Consider, for a moment, that a jammer blocks the signal not only of the offending phone but also of surrounding phones on which people are discussing important things. You know, like precisely when to make a stock trade as someone’s life savings hang in the balance. How much bleeding a sleep-deprived OR intern should consider inappropriate as he performs his first surgery. Or where I can find the nearest breakfast buffet.

On the other hand? I don’t just want a cellphone jammer—I’m far too ambitious for that. Intended only for phone conversations, jammers do nothing, nothing, for those other distractions.

I want a universal mute button.

Think of the sheer implications of such power. I expect I’d quickly get creative once I've taken care of the obvious uses: garbage trucks, car alarms and barking dogs. Think of the doofus with the crooked ballcap who likes to gun his car—the one whose muffler has long popped its welds—past your house late at night. I’d be waiting at the window …Mute. Take those Jet Skis and other “personal watercraft” that plague more and more beaches. Sorry if your engine’s drone is part of your fun, Bub, but we came to hear the wash of the waves. Mute. And what about the ubiquitous music blaring in restaurants, malls and supermarkets? It might be okay…if only it suited the tastes of the paying customers, not the employees. Mute. Mute. And mute.

Alas, there’s a downside to all this. Were the technology to truly exist that could cancel out any annoying sound at the touch of a button, you can bet it would be very expensive, at least at the get-go. It would also be illegal—or some short-sighted people would be using it on every police, fire or ambulance siren.

And for all I know, sometime I might be at the counter of, say, the post office. I’d be in the middle of trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak Queens how I want something mailed, and the patience of someone behind me on the line will reach its end. He’ll reach into his pocket, press a button and “…all I’m trying to tell you—” …will be nothing, since my lips would suddenly produce no sound whatsoever.

Thankfully, I’ve a backup plan. I’ve got Italian blood, you see, so have a cultural advantage no technology can erase…not counting a chain saw. I can gesture my way, arms flailing, for the rest of the conversation.

No comments :

Post a Comment