Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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Cell phones: threat to public safety

Jerry Stratton, April 30, 2006

There is a lot of hate out there for cell phones. I believe that most people who hate cell phones do so because cell phones represent--and are--a loss of control over other people. Cell phones are a threat to authority figures, real or imagined, who are used to a one-to-one confrontation with their victims. They’re a threat to our sphere of control: we don’t know who is on the other end of that stranger’s phone. We feel we ought to.

How cliched, and often annoying, is it for friends to ask “who was that?” after the land-line phone is set down. It isn’t generally our business to know who it was. But we want to know. The cell phone extends that desire to complete strangers. But when we see a stranger using a cell phone, we can’t ask them “who are you talking to?” So we hate cell phones.

I’m not talking about places where it isn’t the cell phone that is the deciding factor: in theaters, for example, it isn’t that someone is talking loudly into their cell phone that pisses us off; it is that someone is talking loudly during the movie. There have always been people who carry on loud conversations in theaters, and they’ve always pissed us off.

But compare that to people walking on the street using their cell phone. There are people who get annoyed at that, people who do not get annoyed just because someone is walking down the street talking. Even if that someone is walking down the street talking to no one in particular.

We can laugh at or ignore homeless people who talk to someone who isn’t there, because they are still completely within our sphere of influence. But someone who is on a phone to another person is a danger. That person has access to people and information that we do not.

Complaints about children talking in theaters doesn’t lead to support for a general ban on children anywhere.

For a great example, look at Kevin Francois and his problems with the Muscogee school system a year ago. Kevin was expelled for talking to his mother during his lunch break. He was on the phone to his mother in Iraq. Not during class, when the cell phone is not the deciding issue, but during his lunch hour, when talking out of turn is not normally a problem. The issue here was specifically that he was talking on a cell phone, not that he was talking. Talking during lunch hour is fine. If his mother had come to the school and had a talk with her son, no one would have had any issue with it.

What makes this incident truly interesting is that he was in trouble for talking to his mother. In pre-cell phone times, school officials were the ultimate authority. They were, in legal terms, in loco parentis. That is, the parent isn’t there, so the school is in charge.

With cell phones, the parent can be there. And, in this case, the parent actually was there, even though she was in a life-threatening job in another country on another continent.

That’s a severe blow to the school’s authority. It means that sometimes, children will be forced to choose between the school and another competing authority. In this case, the kid was empowered to speak up because the school forced him to choose between respecting their authority or his mother’s authority. That weakened the school’s hold on him. When they asked him to acknowledge that he was wrong for speaking to his mother, he felt justified in saying “no”.

In the past, kids called to the principal’s office in order to submit to some crazy abuse of power on the part of school authorities would probably have held back tears and given in. Kevin did not. So the school increased a small expulsion (for talking to his mother) to one so lengthy that he would not be able to graduate (for refusing to apologize for talking to his mother).

With cell phones, there are authority figures on campus other than the school authorities. And they don’t like that. The school claims that they did not know the first time that it was his mother on the phone. But even if that’s true, they did know when she called back, and they still refused to let him answer. That, again, would have undermined their authority, because we know who the mother would have chewed out.

Think about this. They were having what they claim was a disciplinary problem, and they refused to talk to the parent about it. Imagine if the kids forced to strip by school authorities in Maryland had been on a cell phone to their parents. I’ll bet those school authorities would have refused to talk with the parents, too.

One of the most glaring examples of wrong-headedness on the part of the school authorities is that the teacher tried to grab the cell phone away from the kid. That is a major error. Teachers don’t get to forcibly take things from children. Here’s an example from New York:

Some students come to school with knives, guns, and other weapons. An employee trying to restrain or discipline such a student risks bodily harm. New York state prohibits corporal punishment (any act of physical force used to discipline or punish a student) in public schools. It does permit a teacher to use physical force to protect a student or teacher from physical injury, to protect school property, or to restrain or remove a disorderly student. If at all possible, secure assistance from school administrators before acting. The use of physical force should only occur as a last resort in a drastic situation.

The only time forcibly taking things from a kid would be right is, as the above states, if the kid were waving a knife or gun around. Even then physical force may only be used as a “last resort”. But, from the school’s perspective, cell phones probably are worse than guns and knives. A gun or a knife represents far less loss of control than does a cell phone.

Other options

In my opinion, Kevin’s case is an extreme example of what bothers some people about cell phones. Cell phones give their owners other options.

We don’t mind when other people in restaurants have conversations with other people in restaurants. But when they have a conversation, at the same volume level, with someone on the other end of a cell connection, we start to talk about magic devices to block all cell phone usage inside of a place that was designed for conversations.

Some of the things that people say about cell phone use are just amazing. “Why don’t people turn their cell phones off in a restaurant?” “Because they are a combination of rude and dumb.” And then someone comes back with “Well, what about emergencies?” And then a long discussion about how to let people use phones during an emergency but not for normal conversations. The real answer is, why not just let people carry on their conversations?

The answer to that is, because it doesn’t solve the real problem: that the complainers can’t hear the other side of the conversation, so they feel out of control. What is the real difference between a two-person conversation that the complainer is not a part of where both sides are present, and the same conversation where one side is on a cell phone? They can’t eavesdrop on both sides when one side is on the other end of a cell phone. They don’t know what’s happening.

“I hate people who shop and talk on the phone at the same time too.” Because... why? Do you feel hatred towards all people who hold conversations while shopping?

“I hold cell phones in the same low regard I hold cigarettes—keep them away from me, and we’re fine.” Because, after all, cell phones are a major cause of lung cancer, they fill rooms with smoke, and they smell horrible.

That’s some major hate going for people holding conversations, solely because of the means they are using to hold the conversation.

A no-smoking section in restaurants makes sense. A no-talking section might, too, for the right clientele. But a no cell-phone section doesn’t. If it’s the cell phone that bothers customers rather than the talking, then it is specifically that the talk is out of their control when it should be anyway.

In discussions about this woman’s cell phone going off in court, it is fascinating how the conversation turns from a situation where any outburst is problematic, to ones where such things are not normally a problem at all. To people who hate cellphones, there is no difference between making noise in a courtroom, and using a cell phone in any conversation-filled place.

In one sense, cell phones have become the new answering machine. Remember when people hated them? That was back when a ringing phone had to be picked up, and callers didn’t like that people could safely leave the phone alone without losing important messages. Society changed; now people will call hoping to get an answering machine.

But more importantly, cell phone hatred is yet another example where we trivialize important issues in order to address unimportant ones. People who complain about cell phones and driving, for example, do not care that there are dangerous drivers on the road. They only care that some drivers are using cell phones. Watch, and you’ll see that as soon as laws begin to require the use of hands-free cell phones, calls will start for banning hands-free phones, too.

At that point, what’s the difference between having a cell phone and having a passenger or listening to the radio? At best, we once again are abusing an important issue only to attack other people’s freedom. At worst, we’ll consider banning passengers and listening to the radio to justify the cell phone ban.

“Yeah, well, if life were to suddenly get fair, I doubt it would happen in high school.”--Will Stronghold, Sky High

May 14, 2007: Another reason to ban cell phones from schools

Scales Elementary in Murfreesboro took air raid drills a step further Thursday night and staged a mass murder drill—without telling the students it was a drill.

Staff members of an elementary school staged a fictitious gun attack on students during a class trip, telling them it was not a drill as the children cried and hid under tables.

During the last night of the trip, staff members convinced the 69 students that there was a gunman on the loose. They were told to lie on the floor or hide underneath tables and stay quiet. A teacher, disguised in a hooded sweat shirt, even pulled on a locked door.

A drill like this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea if (a) the students were told it was a drill, and (b) they learned to do something other than wait to die, such as run away, call the police, barricade the door, or any of the things that have turned out to be useful in similar attacks. Hiding under a table is useful if you expect the roof to cave in or the windows to shatter. It’s not a one-size-fits-all response to any deadly situation.

What I wondered was, in this age of cell phones, didn’t any of the kids call their parents to say goodbye? How did this hoodied teacher manage to avoid getting shot by law enforcement when either a parent or a student called 911? The same way a real murderer would have: the school bans cell phones.

Students shall not possess or use personal communication devices, such as pagers and cellular phones, while on school property or while attending a school-sponsored activity on or off school property unless pre-approved by the school principal.

Students who possess a personal communication device are in violation of this policy and school rules and are subject to the related disciplinary action.

In Cell Phones: Threat to Public Safety, I wrote that schools are used to exercising absolute authority, and that without cell phones students often “submit to some crazy abuses of power on the part of school authorities” and just “hold back tears and give in” when it happens. With cell phones, the balance of power shifts, and school authorities need to think about how their actions play in the real world.

In this sense, cell phone bans are about safety: the safety of school authorities when they pull bone-headed stunts like this.

There are more good things in the school’s code of conduct. The fake attack probably comes under “We believe the school should… provide citizenship experiences necessary to function in a democratic society”. Hiding under a table and waiting to be killed in the dark is an experience all citizens should have.

And this is funny:

July 6, 2006: Joe Bob Briggs covers cell phone hatred

Joe Bob Briggs covered unreasoning hatred of cell phones four years before I did, but I somehow missed it when I searched for information.

A few months back a colleague and I were getting onto the Amtrak Metroliner between New York and Washington, which is always full of laptopping business commuters, and the attendant told us we were sitting in the “quiet car.”

“You have to be quiet in this car?” I asked him.

“No cell phones,” he said.

I told him we planned to talk during the trip. Was that okay?

The attendant told us that, yes, we were free to talk. We just couldn’t talk on cell phones.

It was the latest in the new Cell Phone Hatred series of laws that are sweeping the country. Paradoxically, it comes at a time when people obviously love cell phones, can’t get enough of them, to the point that some cities are running out of phone numbers to sell to mobile users. Apparently we love our own cell phones but we hate everyone else’s.

It started with the laws in California making it illegal to hold a cell phone while driving. You can hold anything else while driving, including a mug of hot coffee. You can talk while driving. You can process information while driving, including Aerosmith cranked up to 100 decibels. You just can’t do any of these things in the form of a cell phone. The focus of the law is not talking, listening, or holding something--it's the object itself that’s been demonized.

Also, I forgot to link to my own New York’s anti-minority rules will be enforced.

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