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Why I Hate Cell Phones

What not to get me for Christmas.

Email icon  bdj207@nyu.edu

I often feel like I’m the last person in the world without a cell phone. And I like it.

Not because I’m sick of hearing them ring (although I am).

Not because cell phone ownership is an explosive trend, and I hate feeling pressured to conform to trends, although this is also true. (A USA Today story from April 27, 2004, by Jon Swartz, predicts that about 900 million cell phones will be sold in 2008.)

Not because of a recently released study by USC showing that people often use their wireless Internet connections in the bathroom, which has obvious and chilling implications for cell phone users.

Not because of the revulsion that joining the yammering hordes of self-absorbed New Yorkers polluting the air around them with the banal minutia of their lives should inspire in any reasonably considerate person.

My problem with cell phones is that they’ve forever altered one of the central tenets of a healthy, balanced life: free time.

Four or five decades ago, it was a foregone conclusion that technological advances would result in people having more free time.

Randall D. Bartlett, a labor lawyer from the Bronx and one of my few fellow cell-phoneless anachronisms, remembers hearing this theme in high school in Indiana in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Cell phones, however, cut into, rather than augment, their owners’ spare time. They function as high-tech, digital-age leashes, ensuring that the user is never beyond the reach of his or her obligations. Technology, once thought to be a surefire way to increase leisure time, has created a monster: the 24-hour workday.

“I don’t like the expectation that tends to grow around them of an instantaneous response,” Bartlett said of the benefits of not having a cell phone, while hand-rolling a cigarette on the desk of his office at 32nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Like many lawyers, he works constantly and laments his lack of free time. “You can’t just walk someplace now,” Bartlett noted. “You’ve got to be walking and talking.”

That’s my point. I’ve seen the shrill, alarm-clock-like shriek of a cell phone turn walks in the park into high-stress business meetings. I’ve had wet blankets thrown on engrossing conversations when my companions (normally intelligent, thoughtful people) are waylaid by their cell phones.

And I’m not alone in my annoyance. A University of Michigan study done earlier this year reported that 60 percent of those surveyed responded that “public use of cell phones has disturbed or irritated them.” On the other hand, 83 percent said cell phones made their lives easier.

Even Bartlett, locked in a perpetual battle to wrest peace of mind from his schedule, concedes that cell phones can be convenient. “There are times when I really wish I had a cell phone,” he said.

I also have to grudgingly acknowledge the benefits of cell phones, and the reality that I will very probably have to knuckle under and buy one, so that my employer can play at omniscience by calling me out of the blue to demand an update on the latest project or simply to administer a brow-beating, regardless of whether I’m technically on the clock. I, too, will be saddled with the yoke of constant reachability.

So eventually, I’ll have to own a cell phone. But I might not have it with me when you call.