Wednesday, April 1, 2009


One Of Society's Biggest Wrong Numbers

The crowd had been swept from the giant beach by the winds. I plodded along towards the only other person. When I passed, he was shouting instructions about his business to some poor sap.
Nope, you can't get away from the cell phone. No matter how remote and solitary you may be, and no matter how much you yearn for peace from the world, there is always some yahoo bellowing into a phone.
The cell phoniacs are often so rude, they really don't seem to understand when you accuse them of rudeness.Once upon a time, a cell phone would have been the answer to my prayers. As a reporter and later an editor, I was always stuck in some nook of the world frantically trying to contact the office.So you would think that I would regard the cell phone as a wonderful evolution in communications technology.
I do.
But the silly plague that has kids reporting every step they take to school, that allows the chap at the Florida pool to conduct six hours of business while you are trying to toast and tan, that has the jerk in the car just ahead of you wandering in and out of his lane while driving spasmodically, and all of the other nonsense that people pull with their cell phones, has me wishing they were hung and quartered while some supreme being yelled in their ear.
Mary and I sat in a restaurant near I-75 on a trip to Florida while the woman in the next booth, who has a business pumping out or repairing septic tanks, conducted a 30-minute interview on her cell with a customer who wondered why his tank had backed up into his house. She described in graphic detail exactly what would be the problem. When the waitress asked us what flavour of ice cream we wanted, I said anything, as long as it isn't chocolate.
It is amazing, however, just how cell phones have revolutionized journalism.
At Ryerson journalism school back in cave-man days, Ted Schrader taught us that the first thing you did when you got to a story is figure out how to get the story back to the office. Rye grads still talk about his iconic lecture on getting the story back from the Red Lake fire. He had marvelous stories, like the one about bribing a bulldozer operator to park across a mountain road so the opposition couldn't get to a phone and file his story.
The "scoops" often went to the first reporter who could figure out how to get the news back to the presses.
Of course there was also a problem with telexes, telegraphs and LD phones when you wandered the world. It blighted some of my stays in the world's beauty spots. Like the hotel converted from a monastery. How wonderful to have spent the night in a thousand-year-old monk's cell. If only. I ended up being in the room for only 20 minutes because I couldn't get a telex line to North America.
Now you can direct dial from Beijing, or send e-mails from Cape Town, or talk from the peak of Mount Everest, without having to crawl around the floor disconnecting telephones to make your old computer work, complete with its now-ancient acoustic couplers (don't ask).
How great it is in the remotest spots on earth to aim your computer's dish at some satellite and, presto, the editor has the story. Except now the office can get hold of you any time they want, meaning there is no down time. In the bad old days, at least you had peace in between the calls once a day to the boss.
There is no need to talk at length about the plague of cell phones that causes children of all ages feeling they have to talk to their friends every 15 minutes.
And there is no need to remind at length how some people have never mastered the technology and feel they have to talk in a loud voice, or even bellow.
The curse of the driver on the phone also is apparent, damn it, on every road. Even the phones that you don't have to hold can distract a driver right into an accident. Unfortunately, enforcement is spotty. The Ontario Safety League, a venerable non-profit lobby for safety (I have long been a director) was pressuring the Ontario government to crack down on cell phone use by drivers in moving vehicles, only to have the government lurch into action without bothering to spend the necessary time on drafting how the new law would actually work.
Perhaps the abuses will be reduced when the public stop using cell phones as the latest toy instead of a useful tool. Perhaps more people will join the club of which I'm a charter member. We carry cell phones but only use them to make brief calls. Unless we are expecting a call at a certain pre-arranged time, our phones are turned off. Life is simpler that way.
We get all the advantages without being bothered all the time. Now if I can only turn off the sun bather beside me at the pool, or the guy yelling into his phone on an empty beach. The golf clubs that ban cell phones have the right idea. Now if it would only spread to theatres.
On my latest trip, I lost my cell phone in the luggage (Mary takes a lot of stuff) and didn't find it for two weeks. I was kind of hoping it had been stolen.

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