Monday, August 06, 2007

Slipping the electronic leash

Behind the curve

I was gossiping conferring with a colleague in his office when our conversation was suddenly interrupted. A low bell tone had sounded. We paused. We heard it again. I gathered my wits (sometimes a time-consuming task).

“Is that me or you?”

“It's you. I don't have a cell phone.”

I dug the thing out of my pocket, flipped it open, and punched the Receive button. A minute later I concluded the phone communication and resumed the conversation with my colleague. He did not realize that he had witnessed an epochal event, an event comprising several incredible aspects:
  1. I was carrying a cell phone.
  2. It was turned on.
  3. I knew how to answer it (after a bit of fumbling).
My colleague can be forgiven for not grasping the exceptional nature of what might have seemed a mundane occurrence. He, after all, is a cell-phone hold-out who must see himself in a shrinking circle of people who have yet to be electronically leashed—only about one-quarter of the population now. Although I admittedly have one of those now-omnipresent devices, I'm essentially on his side. My cell phone customarily sits in my car, where it is almost always turned off. I feel no need to be instantly available to anyone who gets an itch to call me. Who needs a cell phone all the time?

My students, of course. They all seem to be gabbling into cell phones all the time. They share such valuable gems as, “Yeah, I just got to class,” “Oh, my teacher is here,” and “No, you hang up first.” It's fascinating to witness such slices of life.

No doubt some of my students use their precious minutes to complain about me and the other completely unreasonable teachers who make them put their phones away during class. Really, it's not like texting is so noisy that it disrupts the class. Why, they're even willing to hold their phones just below desk level so that I don't see them. What could be more considerate?

We don't let our students use the calculators built into their phones or PDAs. It's just asking for trouble to let students use communications-enabled electronic devices during exams and quizzes, don't you think? We are at the point where it is perfectly feasible for a student to send a visual image of an exam problem to a friend, who could then walk the student through a solution via a Borgian Bluetooth ear-jack.

The classroom situation is going to get more and more complicated. Perhaps new classrooms should be Faraday cages that block radio signals. That might be the simplest way.

I was never in a hurry to acquire a cell phone, although I gave in much earlier than my colleague. I bought my first cell phone at the end of 2001. A friend was in the middle of a nasty divorce dispute in another state and his attorney was considering having me testify via phone during the trial. The custody of his two-year-old son was at stake in the legal wrangling, so nothing could be more important than to ensure that everything went as smoothly as possible. I had been thinking of getting a phone to keep in the car in case of emergencies, especially since pay phones were gradually disappearing from the scene. (It's much worse now!) My friend's legal problems tipped the balance and I went shopping.

I'm on my second phone now, having replaced the 2001 model when I switched service providers two years ago. The one I have now is already quite obsolete, lacking as it does any image capture capability. No candid camera for me.

But I don't care. The phone is for my convenience, so I'll carry it only when I feel like it. My phone rings so rarely that I don't recognize the ring, which I have never bothered to customize. It rings. That's enough. If I notice a sound coming from my phone, I can figure out what to do. Eventually. I have no idea how many minutes my service plan provides. You see, it doesn't matter, so I don't remember. As much as I use the phone, my service minutes are effectively infinite. Is there a market for my unused excess?

On that day when my cell phone rang in my colleague's office, I was waiting for a call from a friend with whom I planned to have lunch. I hadn't seen him in a while and we were going to take about his recent business and family problems. I wanted to be there for my friend and that's why I had my phone with me. I figured one bright spot in our conversation would be about how smart his boy is and how the kid excels at reading and doing math.

Yes, it's the same friend who was in that custody fight in 2001. He won. I can blame my cell phone on him.


Rhoadan said...

I was a cell phone holdout too. The tipping point for me though, was the year the rail lines north of New Haven, CT were electrified. Up until then, I'd been able to count on being able to call my parents from the platform while the locomotive was changed from electric to diesel. Now, the train doesn't stay in the station long enough for me to get to the pay phone reliably.

See, I take the train from Philly to New England (at the time Providence, RI; now Boston) at least once/year. I'd call from New Haven to give my family some idea of how close to schedule I was.

Unfortunately, the cell phone is too useful for me to treat it like you do.

John Armstrong said...

My advisor's a holdout. As for myself, I just picked up iPhone (which takes no article, judging from the documentation) to go with my new New Orleans number.

I actually have a pedagogical plan for it. Day 1: "I have [withdraw iPhone from pocket to display] one of these. I can receive, and even respond to, emails about class at any time, so you don't have to wait for an office hour. But the coolest thing is that it has this little switch [indicate 'silent' switch] that lets me turn off the ringer. Your phones probably have one too. Please use it."