Several years ago, on trips to the States, I used to comment that Israel was definitely more advanced than the United States in terms to the cellular telephone epidemic. The cell phone saturated this small country faster than it did the US. However, on my recent trips I have noticed that America has caught up to Israel, and the same disturbing manifestations of cell phone communication are now part of our shared culture.
In the field of tourism, there is no question that the cell phone is a great boon. Mobile communication makes our lives much easier and eliminates a great deal of frustration and wasted time. When one has to meet a tour group out in the field, when one is waiting for a bus to arrive for lunch, when one is trying to find ones way to an appointment in a hard-to-find location, the ability to communicate whenever, from wherever, is one of those improvements that make you wonder how you functioned without it for all those years.
The question is, does this benefit justify the cost in terms of what the cell phone does to interpersonal communication? To wit:
The expectation of constant and instant availability for everyone. Obviously, there are people - like surgeons - who need to be reachable all the time. Jewish educators, on the other hand, dont. But often I have been scolded by people who have not succeeded in getting to speak to me immediately: how can I not have a cell phone? or how can it be turned off? or how can I not check the messages every hour? Simple. I have an office and a secretary and an answering machine at home and at work. I return messages in a timely fashion. But sometimes I am driving, or thinking, or talking to someone, and what I am doing at the moment is more important to me than any interruption I can think of. Yet somehow, I am seen as inconsiderate for not being available 24/7.
Which brings us to the question of priorities in communication. The way most people use a cell phone implies that whoever might be calling is more important than whomever I am talking to face to face at the moment. The ring of the cell phone interrupts personal conversations, meetings, classes, concerts, worship services - any social setting you can think of. And the ringee either takes the call then and there, or jumps and runs for the door in mid sentence. And so his/her face-to-face interlocutors remain sitting there, wondering, what are we, chopped liver? I suspect that there are two factors at work here: a) of course, the feeling that whatever the call, it may be is too important to miss - after all, I am expected to be available all the time; b) as accustomed as we are to cell phones, it still makes us feel important to be suddenly called right then and there; there is an implication of urgency in the feeling that even here, wherever I am, someone has gone to the trouble to find me and call me with an important communication.
Most troubling of all to me is the end of privacy. Recently I entered a public restroom, where I was privy (as it were) to a very personal conversation between the occupant of one stall and his mother somewhere out there in cellular space. And there are the intimate romantic conversations of the person next to you on the bus, or the hirings and firings in the airport van, etc. The fact that these conversations take place everywhere instead of in a home or office means that everyone around is expected to act as if s/he is not hearing them. In other words, you are sitting next to me, even touching me, conducting, in a loud voice, a conversation that I am not supposed to hear. The only interpretation I can make of this odd situation is that I am not present, not visible, non-existent. Your cellular interlocutor is real; I am virtual. You have taken my space with me in it and eliminated me. Perhaps this is more glaring in Israel because everything is more crowded here, and sitting next to a stranger in a bus or a jitney cab is a common experience and a tight squeeze. And it can certainly be argued that privacy was always less of a priority here than in North American culture, so the cellular shift was a perfect fit.
OK, you can have my cell phone number, but dont expect an answer.