The Global Phone Booth

cell library

Yesterday, I rode my bicycle to the library. You remember the library, the place with books on shelves, uncomfortable chairs to sit on and read, blond wood tables, squeaky wood floors, and the woman at the massive desk in front of the card files who scowled and shushed anyone who dared talk above a whisper.

What? Libraries aren’t like that anymore? Sad, but all too true.

Nowadays, people talk in the library, not only above a whisper, but at full volume. Activities at one end of the building echo through the entire edifice, making reading an illusory occupation. The clack of computer keys drowns out the soft turning of pages, and the bip and boop of the electronic check-out devices competes with the voices of library staff trying to explain how to use them.

The one thing I didn’t expect, the one thing for which I have zero tolerance, was the cell phone conversation going on in the corner of the Fiction section, where I was attempting to read the dust jacket copy of my next foray into the predictable world of Robert Parker and his gumshoe Spencer.

I looked up with my best incredulous Peter Lorre expression, and whispered, “Please, no cell phone calls in the library.” Suffice it to say the budding social relationship between library patrons went downhill from there.

Bias alert: My wife and I have never owned a cell phone, do not now own a cell phone and never will own a cell phone.

I first encountered a cell phone in 1995. My brother, a radiologist, had one. He handed the wee plastic thingie to me and said, “Here, you can talk to Mom.” I ended up talking to my sister-in-law because my mother was a mile ahead of her in another car heading north on the Denali Highway, the car with no cell phone in it.

Cell phones have to be the singularly most destructively indispensable device never needed by human beings. Who’d have guessed that the clunky car phone found in Mercedes Benz luxury cars in the 80s would turn into the tiny pack-of-cards sized ubiquitous center of obsession of 4.1 billion people 30 years later?

Cell phones are environmentally destructive, requiring mining, transportation and disposal of rare minerals and toxic waste products.

Each cell phone uses 4,221 megajoules of energy per year (equivalent of 32 gallons of gasoline). Cell phones are so cheap and easily disposable, each year 140,000,000 are discarded and replaced, adding 80,000 pounds of lead to leach into the earth, depositing 4.7 tons of gold and 49 tons of silver scattered into landfills across the globe. It takes the equivalent of 584,000 gallons of gas to charge all the cell phones in use on Earth every day.

The support structure for that unnecessary chat with a friend inside the house in front of which one is parked consists of cell phone towers, microwave systems, satellites blasted leagues into space and bazillions of ergs of energy coursing through the earth, the air and outer space. The total energy involved in maintaining cell phone conversations around the world would light the homes and heat the dinners of millions of families around the world too poor to afford a cell phone connection.

These are just the physical effects. The social changes wrought by cell phones are enormous and largely unappreciated.

In a world obsessed with computer privacy, cell phone communicators carry on their conversations in a loud voice in public places (such as libraries), unconcerned about anyone listening in, even to their most intimate discussions. Cell phones are easily tracked and monitored, even without court orders and government mandates. The cell phone user’s location can be triangulated and pinpointed by anyone with proper tools and incentives.

If that isn’t bad enough, cell phones have crappy audio quality. The most frequent question asked on a cell phone (following the obligatory “Where are you?) is “What? followed closely by “Huh?” And that’s for stationary cell phones. Add motion and car wind noise and cell phone conversions rival bus station announcements for incomprehensibility.

Judging by our daily walks, cell phones have become a handy excuse to avoid eye contact and affable greetings among the few other pedestrians we encounter. One of our favorite past times is to watch a cell phoner walk toward us, eyes in rapt contact with the tiny glowing screen, whereupon we loudly say, “Look up!” just before they would bump into us. They look up, startled, jerked back into consciousness of their surroundings.

That’s the real price of cell phones: unawareness. Those walking about lifting their electronic teat to their face every ten seconds are oblivious of the world around them. They carry their digital cocoon with them, their minds far, far away, wrapped in the febrile vibrations of cell phone towers, satellites and tiny flat computers. Cell phoners driving automobiles are frequently known to drive into telephone poles, their eyes glued to the tiny screen as their vertical target approaches.

One might think that cell phones are becoming a force of evolution, an unnatural selection process reducing the adaptation of Homo cellphonensis to existing environmental conditions.

One might hope.

It would take a library full of reports to document the negative effects of cell phones and cell phone technology to the Earth and all its inhabitants.

But then, who reads, with all that computer power at your fingertips?

Who pays attention?

Who thinks?

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