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It's for you...

Your Humble Blogger has seen a lot of hoo-hah this week about the high-pitched ring-tone that supposedly is beyond the frequency that grown-ups can hear, but will be audible to teenagers. Now, I understand that high-tech hoo-hah is and of right ought to be unconnected with real life or actual usefulness, but do people really think that this is a big deal? I mean, mobile phones already have silent modes, right? In what I think of as an ordinary high-school classroom, having the inaudible-to-grupps ring-tone will not prevent the teacher from spotting a student who whips out the device and starts thumbing it, particularly if all the circumjacent teenagers are looking around at her and giggling. And in a big college lecture hall, the teacher wouldn’t notice the vibrating noise of a mobile on silent, and is besides likely to be a TA not so many years older than the undergrads. None of this addresses the real issues: when is it OK to use the mobile? When is it OK, as long as it’s silent? When is it OK to be out of touch for a few hours? What is the appropriate behavior when in class? What is the appropriate behavior for a teacher, when he sees the mobile come out? Is it OK to take notes on laptops, and is it OK for a teacher to forbid laptops (because of IM)?

I think we (meaning people more or less my age, post-boomers say, born between 1965 and 1975 or so) are the last to think of it as normal to be completely out of touch for most of the day. When were at school, an injury or illness might mean waiting in the nurse’s office for an hour or more while attempts were made to contact a parent. Answering machines started appearing, but were not truly ubiquitous until the 90s. Not only were mobile phones terribly uncommon but most jobs did not allow the employee to take personal calls. Oh, in a truly dire emergency, it was generally possible to get hold of somebody within a few hours, but that delay was an expected part of the work or school day. We were out of touch while at school, and if we went to work we were out of touch while at work. It was occasionally annoying, but on the whole, it was just how the world worked.

My own view is skewed as well by four years at a college which did not allow phones in the dorm rooms. There were two phones to a hall, one at each end, and they were generally shared by twenty to thirty people. They were often busy, as you can imagine, and they were also often unanswered, as the occupants of nearby rooms might be away (or sulking), and the occupants of farther rooms might not hear the ring. And, of course, email was something you might check once or even twice a day, by going up to the computer lab. If you were a nerd.

Now, of course, it’s only old grumps who make themselves inaccessible, moment to moment. Phone calls and emails are expected to reach the recipient immediately or sooner, and the idea of leaving your child at school while you visit the store incommunicado is quite likely actionable.

And, on the whole, it’s an improvement. Why, after all, would it be good to be out of touch? But it does place a burden on the individual to manage access, preferably by turning off the phone whilst in class, rather than by programming it for ear-piercing shrieks.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I can't resist telling a semi-relevant story from a class my wife was in: a student's cell phone rang, and the professor took it from her, answered it, and said "I'm sorry, she's in class now, she won't be able to deal you any drugs until after 2:30".

More relevantly: I've been struck as well by the different reactions within our generation. I have wholeheartedly switched to the always-available approach: if my cell battery gets low, I'm anxious until I can recharge. I never turn the phone off. If I have a laptop with me, I check email whenever I'm near wireless. Etc. My wife is not like this; she usually has her cell phone, but it's sometimes off; she might not check email for a day or two at a time, etc. Is it a gendered issue? I certainly don't think that I'm more likely to be urgently needed than my wife is. I just like to feel available.

I think it's more an issue of personality than gender, but I don't have much to base that on.

For me, I've always been a late adopter. I keep up with my emails while at a computer, but I don't carry a laptop around with me. When I had a cell phone, it was usually off, unless I was in a circumstance where I couldn't otherwise be reached, and I knew it was likely that someone would be trying to reach me. (Like, driving home from work after leaving work later than usual, for instance.)

My dad, on the other hand, is usually immediately reachable by SOME means, including email or cell phone.

I like being reachable, but don't feel compelled to be. My cell phone is the first device I've had that has caller ID, and when I got it, it was amazingly liberating to think that the phone could ring, but I could see who was calling, and if I didn't want or need to talk to them, I didn't have to answer. Previously, I had always answered the phone when it rang, because what if it was something important! I don't have to do that any more.

In conversations like these, I am contractually obligated to my 13-year-old self to mention the Ray Bradbury short story "The Assassin." You know, the one with the fudge-ripple ice cream as the murder weapon...

Snakes on a plane.

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