TCS Daily

Cooling Down with the Cell Phone

By Eric Scheske - January 26, 2007 12:00 AM

I finally bought a cell phone. I'd had one for years, but my wife usually took it, and it was a piece of junk, one of those older clunky ones with an unreliable analogue network.

But that changed. I now have a Motorazr V3 cell phone with voicemail, caller id, call waiting, conferencing, and enough minutes to service a gossip columnist. I think I could even shave with it, and my provider's digital service has been nearly flawless.

It has worked well with my law clients. If they give me a cell phone number to call, I'll often use my cell phone and return the call while walking, so I can exercise and earn money at the same time. I did this the third day I had the phone, while walking back to the office after lunch. I called the client at Point A and ended the call a half mile later, at Point B.

But after I hung up, I felt like I was waking from a deep daydream. For a moment, I couldn't even remember what route I had taken from Point A to B, though I've walked the route over a hundred times. Since then, I've grown more use to walking and phoning, but I found that first experience a little unnerving.

I like multitasking, if it's the right kind. Reading a book while waiting for laundry to dry: smart multi-tasking. Reading a book while interviewing for a job: dumb multi-tasking. Ordering a Pabst while the head on your Guinness settles: fun multi-tasking. Dictating a book to a secretary while handwriting an article: extraordinary multi-tasking (and pulled off by precious few, like G.K. Chesterton; his hero, Thomas Aquinas, could keep six scribes going at once).

What about multi-tasking with the cell phone?

I'm not sure. Everyone has heard the debate about driving and cell phones. Four states have prohibited or restricted the use of cell phones while driving. One study says that cell phone driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Some say cell phoning while driving doesn't affect them. Some say a hands-free set makes all the difference, though at least one study says it doesn't.

I'm not entering that debate here, but I will admit to missing an obvious left-hand turn once while using my cell phone. I also remember my dream-walking experience. Those two experiences combined make me think phoning and driving is about as safe as reading a book and driving.

But why? I can talk with a passenger and drive. I can listen to the radio and drive. I can even listen to the radio, drink a Big Gulp, and air guitar while I drive. Why not chat on the phone?

Enter Marshall McLuhan, the media maven, Catholic convert, and daily communicant. A household name in the 1960s, he's become something of a cult figure today. I hear his name mentioned occasionally on TV shows, probably because producers took the college communication courses that still teach McLuhan or reference his works. I searched the Internet to find articles about McLuhan and the cell phone, but there's not much out there.

So I pulled down his magnum opus, Understanding Media, to find an answer. It didn't take long. McLuhan had a stark opinion: "The telephone demands complete participation." He pointed out that some people could scarcely talk to their best friends on the phone without becoming angry, precisely because it's such a demanding medium.

He said the telephone is extremely hard to resist, asking "Why should we feel compelled to answer a ringing public phone when we know the call cannot concern us? Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? Why is that tension so very much less for an unanswered phone in a movie scene? The answer to all of these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity." As a further example, he mentioned a postal incident in 1949, in which a "psychotic veteran, Howard B. Unruh" went on a mad rampage in Camden, killed thirteen people, then barricaded himself in his house and exchanged gun fire with police. A reporter called Howard on the phone. He stopped firing and answered,


"This Howard?"

"Yes. . . ."

"Why are you killing people?"

"I don't know. I can't answer that yet. I'll have to talk to you later. I'm too busy now."

The telephone, McLuhan said, is a very cool (as in "cold") medium.

"Hot" media and "cool" media were McLuhan's buzz dichotomy. A hot medium is one that intensely extends one of our senses. The radio is a hot medium: ear only, and a lot of it. But it leaves the other senses free to do what they want. The telephone, on the other hand, is an extremely cool medium. The ear doesn't receive much information, forcing the user to participate, to fill in the gaps.

I think McLuhan was right. You ever wonder why you have to say "uh-huh" frequently during an otherwise-monopolized phone conversation? How can I explain the phenomenon of a friend's 102-year-old mother with severe dementia, who can't hold a coherent conversation, unless it's on the phone? Have you ever experienced a sense of agitation while on a lengthy telephone call? I have, frequently. I start to feel frustrated for no apparent reason. I need to tell myself that I'm getting "worked up" for no reason and to relax.

I always thought it was just me, one of my quirks. To alleviate it, years ago I started walking around during long phone conversations. It seems to help, probably because it relieves a little of the pressure that comes from the phone's "demand of complete participation."

And as I plunge myself into cell phone society, I'm going to keep walkin'. Why not? I can use the exercise. And all that exercise heat might offset some of the coolness that McLuhan said is the phone.

Eric Scheske is a freelance writer, a monthly columnist at National Catholic Register, and a Contributing Editor of Godspy.



Filling in the gaps..
That's a good way to describe the phenomenon of the telephone. You do need to participate more fully. The telephone does demand that you essentially stop whatever else you might be doing and devote full attention to the conversation. It is our established, reasonable expectation regarding this social interaction. You are rather not allowed to miss anything the other party might be saying. It would be considered a significant breach of etiquette.

Seems like this might be social behavior established for my generation, however. What about the younger people? Do they feel like there is a big difference between a cell phone conversation and a regular conversation? My daughters seem to be able to stay on the phone almost continuously and still interact effectively with real people (as opposed to electronic people) simultaneously. They never say "I'm on the phone, here!", the way we older types seem to.

Is telephone behavior a universal physiological phenomenon or a learned social mechanism?

Complete Focus...
I think that the phone is unique because the person on the other end cannot see what is going on at your end. For example, a conversation while driving is OK because the person is in the car with you, and they understand an occasional distraction (and, in fact, can help watch for danger).

In contrast, the person on the other end of the phone expects you to listen to every word they say, even though he may know that you may be driving a car at the same time. Thus, it matters not whether one is using a hands free phone or not (although dialing a phone manually is certainly more dangerous than using voice recognition to dial, as you have to look at the phone for the former, and think of the numbers).

Talking on the phone while jogging is fine. Doing so while driving is not.

As to kids today: regardless of whether they can multitask or not, it is NOT polite to talk on the phone while participating in a task with another person in person. Pay attention to the one you are with. That should be the rule.


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