by | Jul 25, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Well, I was poised to attack. Here it is, the 20th anniversary of the cell phone, and isn’t that just perfect for a newspaper columnist, seeing as we are, after all, a rather traditional lot, nostalgic for the old, suspicious of the new? So I sharpened my pencil. This was red meat in a tiger’s jaws.

Let’s see. If not for the blasted cell phone, I would never have to listen to ring tones in a movie theater, or loud one-person conversations in a restaurant, or the always fun “You’ll never GUESS where I’M CALLING FROM!” on an airplane.

If not for the cell phone, I might have to check only one answering service, instead of two, and get one phone bill, instead of two, and hear from 100 telephone salespeople, instead of 200.

If not for the cell phone, I might have a legitimate excuse for why certain people couldn’t reach me, even though I didn’t want them to reach me. If not for the cell phone, I would no longer need to pack chargers and extension cords and earpieces and backup batteries — nor would I be staring at the Grand Canyon, the wind blowing softly, and suddenly hear an electronic chirping sound.

If not for the cell phone, I would never have to say — and I believe this is now my most uttered sentence — “Wait . . . I’m losing you . . . can you hear me? . . . Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Can you hear me? . . . “

Is that a sentence?

The ring of Beethoven

My list was quickly swelling. I would finish this column in no time.

If not for the cell phone. I would never have to dodge a swerving car piloted by a person trying to dial his access code.

If not for the cell phone, I would never have to hear Beethoven reduced to ring tone.

If not for the cell phone, I would never be asked by my boss — as I headed off to vacation — “You’ll have your cell with you, right?”

And, oh, yes, if not for the cell phone, I would never suffer subscriber envy, in which a consumer discovers, after he just signed up for two years of service at $80 a month, plus $250 for the latest gizmo phone, that his best friend got the same thing for $1.75.

Oh, I was having the easiest time with this column, this sonnet to the good old days of corded phones and busy signals and humans actually needing other humans to have a conversation in the middle of nowhere.

And then the cell phone rang.

And it was a relative who lives far away, whose call I would have otherwise missed.

And then the cell phone rang, and I talked to someone at the airport whose flight was canceled.

And then the cell phone rang, a niece in the car who was lost and needed directions.

Keeping up with the kids

And then the stories began circulating, about the highway breakdown saved by a cell phone, about the parents who could keep track of their children thanks to cell phones.

And as the poison began leaking from my pen, here, in the end, is what I realized:

It is not the cell phone that I’ve come to hate. It’s our inability to resist it.

Taken on its own merits, a cell phone — like a TV or a computer — is a wonderful device, upgrading our lives in terms of speed or essential communications.

But we can’t leave it at that. Business people had to race ahead of their competitors, until, of course, everyone was cellular. Waiting in line or driving a long distance — which we used to do without complaint — now is a complete waste unless we fill it with a cell phone conversation. And sure, it would be more polite to wait until the movie or meal ended before firing up the digits, but “this call is really important.”

The problem with new technology is simple: It allows us to do less, but it results in our doing more. We gorge on it. We overdo it.

The truth is, there might have been a louder celebration for the 20th anniversary of this revolutionary device.

But we were all on the phone.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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