Ubiquitous. It’s a Latin word the English language adopted a long time ago. It means “present everywhere, or seemingly so.” It’s ironic that such an old, clunky word best describes a compact, streamlined device like a cell phone. But that’s the situation. Cell phones are everywhere. Ringing, chiming, vibrating, playing snippets of Bach and rock. Men wear them on their belts. Women carry them in their purses. Kids hook them to their pants pockets. Most of the time, though, they’re clutched in hands as their owners peer into their screens as if they are crystal balls.
For those of us who choose to remain incommunicado much of the time, eavesdropping can no longer be considered impolite, since it’s impossible to avoid doing it these days. You can’t help overhearing a muddle of one-sided conversations wherever you go. It’s evident that for many people, seemingly urgent affairs demand their constant cellular attention. From the post office to the bank to the grocery, and even as they carry the sacks to the car, their every thought and emotion is verbalized, digitized and bounced from cell tower to tower until it reaches some hapless listener at the other end.
Is all of this talking really necessary?
It’s not a new question. In the classic book Walden, published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau said, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau saw it coming. Even with Morse Code, he said it seemed “as if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.”
One can only guess what Thoreau would have to say about cell phones. He might revise his famous observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Desperation? Probably. Quiet? Definitely not. Just watch the cars passing by. Every other driver is hunch-shouldering a cell phone to his ear, maintaining a stream of consciousness monologue with someone out there somewhere.
Federal authorities are now considering lifting the ban on cell phone use on airplanes. These authorities must be folks who travel by private jet most of the time. Anyone who has flown the public airways will react to the idea with, “You’ve gotta be kidding.” It’s hard to imagine who would be in favor letting people talk willy-nilly all during an airplane flight. The talkers might favor it. For everyone else, it would be close-quartered agony. With crowded planes and cramped seating, flying coach these days already borders on torture. Forcing people to sit unnaturally still in an airline seat for two or three hours is bad enough, but putting them within inches of incessant cellular chatter would be enough to ignite a type of road rage at 36,000 feet.
Some will argue that permitting cell phone usage anywhere and everywhere simply leads to better communications. But why is all of this discussion suddenly necessary? We harnessed electricity, landed men on the moon, and invented Pop Tarts all without making one cell phone call. Now some folks can’t step out to buy a loaf of bread without phoning home. What’s going on?
In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Strother Martin says to Paul Newman, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” And that’s what we’ve got here. A lot of cell phone usage would be unnecessary if better communication were taking place in advance. If people would make plans, arrange schedules, and verify a few facts ahead of time, cell phones could get a rest. It could well be that a lot of cell phone usage is about ego, or loneliness, or status, or something. It’s not about communication.
So let’s keep the cell phones turned off on airplanes and encourage good cell phone etiquette everywhere else. Perhaps a bit of tranquility can be spread around in public places until it’s prominent everywhere. You know. Ubiquitous.