ell phones: once convenient, now annoying

LA JOLLA, Calif. (U-WIRE) — The Italian word “cafone” indicates a person who, taken by his own self-importance, behaves in a rude and arrogant manner when in the presence of other people. Recently, the Italian press and common folklore have been associating this word more frequently with the owners of cellular phones. It is hard not to sympathize with this association. Most noncellular chatters will probably have a fairly good idea of what I am talking about. You are having lunch with an acquaintance and — right in the middle of discussing last night’s movie — her phone rings, and there she goes talking for half an hour with Ted from work.
Not only that, but since, out of politeness, you wait for her to finish the call before eating your lunch, the net result of this conversation (from your personal, if somewhat partial, point of view) is the ruin of your risotto, your culinary sacrifice acknowledged only by a half-hearted, “So, you were saying ….” As is the case with every good Italian, I find the very idea of discussing work at the lunch table repulsive and barbaric.
To do it with somebody other than the person with whom you are having lunch, and over a phone, no less (thereby cutting your lunch companion out of the conversation), should be considered grounds for self-defense in your friend’s murder trial. Then there are, of course, the classics: phones ringing at the movies, in theaters, at the opera (always, with mathematical precision, at the time in which the heroine is about to die in an orgy of watery eyes, accompanied by a pianissimo). It is quite surprising that people accustomed to using such technologically advanced gadgets should be baffled by the linear simplicity of an on/off switch.
A person less urbane than myself could even entertain the suspicion that such people will leave the phone turned on intentionally, out of the sheer pleasure of telling the caller that they are at the opera and asking if the caller could please call later.
This behavior, disturbing as it might be, is in line with the most important applications of the cellular phone: talking about one’s location, and talking about cellular-phone rates. Why people have such a compelling need to notify all their friends of where they are located at any particular time of the day, I don’t know. However, it is a fact that, while disembarking, say, from the 10:30 p.m. plane from Denver, you can always find people rushing to whip out their cell phones to inform the world that they are, indeed, as planned and at exactly the expected time, gloriously disembarking from the 10:30 p.m. from Denver.
If hearing some stranger relate his or her position to the world from the hall of the airport is little more than an annoying curiosity, the situation is very different when the same stranger loads phone and family into a car and starts driving. People should be reminded that the theoretical possibility of placing phone calls from one’s car does not translate into an imperative to actually hold a continuous phone conversation while driving. Most San Diego drivers are bad enough with both eyes on the road, and the last thing we need is to have them in the middle of a heated argument while launching a 4,000-pound sport utility vehicle down a crowded freeway at 80 mph.
If you really need to call while in transit, please have the decency to ride the bus. If things are tough for the innocent bystander, all is not well for the owner of the cell phone, either. Cell phones are diabolic instruments by which one can always be reached at the exact moment at which one would rather be unreachable. People keep telling me that things are not so bad, and that if you don’t want to be reached, you can always turn the phone off. I don’t buy it. First of all, if things were really that simple, why is everyone’s phone ringing in the middle of “A Streetcar Named Desire”? It is as if people have a pernicious desire to be reached while at the theater — which seems to defy the purpose of going to the theater to begin with.
Second, phones generate expectations, and one expects the proud owner of a cell phone to be more reachable than the equally proud nonowner. A cellular phone is a good way to increase one’s amount of unpaid overtime work. If you try to explain to your boss that your phone was off last weekend because you prefer the predicaments of Blanche Dubois to those of the marketing department, you would certainly be offered some colorful suggestions as to what to do with your brand-new phone, followed by the advice (from your, by now, ex-boss) of sleeping late on Monday because the unemployment office does not open until 10 a.m.
The power of the cell phone to nullify any possible excuse for not being reachable is so strong that in Italy (where, out of a population of 60 million, there are already 30 million cell phones), one of the most lucrative segments of the market is composed of mothers who buy them for their children (where, by Italian custom, a child is considered to be anyone between the age of five and 50) so they won’t have an excuse not to call.
There are, I will admit, occasions in which a cell phone is extremely useful. Everybody appreciates the ability to call AAA when your car breaks down on the freeway near San Clemente or some other ungodly place without relying on the graciousness of other motorists, which — as all Southern California people know — is as scarce as a liberal city council. In this predicament, a cell phone could be a godsend, unless your battery is dead because, prior to the breakdown, you called every single person you know, keeping them informed of your ever-changing location and the exceptional telephone rates your cellular service is providing you.
All in all, cellular phones are a great invention but, like all innovations, they can be misused. They can be used for our convenience and to get out of difficult situations. They can also be used to let our work erode more of our personal life and to erect an even higher barrier between ourselves and the people around us. We already live very isolated and lonely lives, and the last thing we need is a tool that will isolate us, even in those (increasingly rare) occasions when we are surrounded by people.
Maybe cellular companies should start a new plan: 50 percent discount on all calls followed by a 15-minute conversation with a stranger.

Simone Santini’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of California-San Diego paper, The Guardian.