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July 06, 2005

Cell Phoned

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wrote a long while back about being the last hold-out in a cellphoned universe. (Here's a posting about women, men, and cellphone usage. I wrote here about the annoyances of life in a cellphone-beleaguered world.) What I don't like about the devices boils down to two things:

  • They shoot holes in pleasant social arrangements. People yakking on cellphones while walking on the sidewalk talk loudly and wave their arms about. Formerly quiet doctors'-waiting-rooms are now buzzing with inane one-sided gab. Drivers on cellphones really ought to pay more attention to the traffic around them. People dining with you in restaurants feel free to answer calls and talk on their phones for minutes at a time while you sit opposite them. People generally seem less prone to make arrangments and then stick to 'em, and more prone to arrange everything on the fly. Upside: flexibility. Downside: mess. The cellphone may often be a convenience, but it seems to serve just as often as inducement to behave childishly.

  • Cellphones keep you always connected. Ignoring for the moment the advantages of this, heck, I like having stretches when I can't be reached. And I like the way traditional technology shores up some traditional boundaries. The lines between work and nonwork have certainly grown blurrier for many people thanks to cellphones. Is this always an advantage? Not in my book.

Well, my days as a principled old-school square are now over. The other day, The Wife brought home a cellphone, gave it to me, and ordered me to start using it.

I brought this on myself, darn it. I'd become such an email addict that I'd gotten to the point where I barely use the phone at all in a conventional sense. I use phones these days mainly as answering machines -- a habit The Wife found frustrating. Why shouldn't she be able to call The Hubster and expect him to pick up? So now I have a cellphone, and an agreement with The Wife that anytime the cellphone rings, I'll answer it.

I find myself much humbled -- no longer large, proud, and heroic in my principled objection to Stupid New Trends, but instead struggling with the basics of 21st century life. Funny what you find out in such situations. I've discovered, for instance, that I'm really, really bad at talking on a cellphone while walking on the sidewalk. Some people are sidewalk-cellphone naturals, walking about as though they were born with a cellphone wired into their systems. Me, I feel unnerved, like I've awakened into one of those bad dreams where you lift off the ground and begin to fly. As a consequence, when I do need to talk on the cellphone while out on the sidewalk, I find myself a nook or a doorway and stand there to chat, facing the wall. I probably look like a bum who's gone there to take a leak.

Humbling. Equally humbling is my discovery that if I let even a few days go by without using the cellphone, I return to the device without any memory of how to negotiate its menus, sensibly arranged though they are. But I find that memory and habit issues are forever cropping up when it comes to managing life avec cellphone. I like to carry as little with me as possible, for instance -- which means that I'm forever charging out of the house without the phone.

Interesting to note how having a cellphone affects the texture of life too. The cellphone is another gizmo to carry around, as well as another gadget whose battery life needs tending-to. I have a fresh understanding of why up-to-date pants and slacks so often feature such an awful lot of pockets. But the cellphone also enables me to be sweet and thoughtful in new ways. On my way home from the office, for instance, I like to call The Wife and ask if I can pick anything up for her at the store.

I find it weird that I'm now able to talk on the phone virtually anywhere -- and I mean weird in a conceptual way. I'm reminded of the early day of cordless at-home phones. It was an often-funny moment. Many people had a hard time adjusting to the fact that they no longer needed to worry about the phone cord. I have fond memories of The Wife, for instance, talking on our new cordfree phone while never moving more than few feet away from the phone's base -- often even leaning towards the base, as though the phone had a cord she was anxious not to snap. "Honey?" I'd say. "You can go anywhere in the apartment with that thing." She'd glare at me, of course.

These days, I'm the one feeling dizzy and bewildered. But the cellphone takes untethered-ness one step further. Now you can float not just through an apartment while yakking on the phone but the entire world. Exhilarating! But also a little airsick-making.

The main thing I've noticed about life avec cellphone is that I have different kinds of conversations on the cellphone than I have on land lines. They're shorter and choppier; they tend to be focused on swapping information. I find it much harder to have a just-unwinding, open-ended conversation on the cellphone than I do on a land line, for example.

Why should this be so? Is it down to the quality of the sound? There seems to be an ever-so-slight delay in the conversational back-and-forth on a cellphone. This takes a little getting used to, as it interrupts the free flow of intuition and thought. The scratchiness of cellphone sound doesn't contribute to ease either.

At first, I'd been awestruck by the quality of the cellphone's reception. Verizon seems to have NYCity well-blanketed with coverage. I was so impressed that I found myself wondering if the time had come to get rid of the land line. Yet for some reason I didn't really want to. I don't use the land line often, but when I do it's often for stream-of-consciousness yakfests -- yakfests that I find very enjoyable, and that I'd miss. Since it's hard to imagine indulging in such conversations on the cellphone, I finally decided not to give up the landline.

I found myself wondering if I'm the only person who finds it the case that landlines lend themselves to easygoing conversation better than cellphones do. So I did a rigorous, large-scale, Blowhards study -- ie., I asked a half-dozen frends and colleagues about their experiences.

What I found is that I'm not alone. Nearly everyone said that they use the land line and the cellphone for different purposes and in different ways. A couple of friends reported that early on they'd actually given up their land lines. Both signed back on to the landline after the shortcomings of having only a cellphone had become clear.

Once again, I find myself wondering: Digital technology -- unbeatable when it comes to manipulating information, but maybe not the best when it comes to doing justice to many human qualities. Is this fact in the nature of digital media -- in the fact that everything's chopped-up into zeros and ones -- or does it have to do simply with the rate at which the digital information is processed?

Early music CDs may provide a model for thinking about this question. The earliest CDs amazed everyone with the clarity and crispiness of the sound they produced. But many people were also appalled by a harshness and brightness in the CD sound too. For many people, there was a fingernails-on-the-blackboard quality to even the most gorgeous early-CD recordings.

Would there have been a problem at all if if the CDs had encoded sound at twice the rate they did? Some people have told me that, if the manufacturing companies had waited a year or two before pulling the digital trigger, all the scotch-taping and bandaging they've been busy with ever since would never have been needed. This seems to suggest that digital harshness and overbrightness are consequences of processing rates.

Still, I wonder ... All those zeroes and ones ...

I also wonder about the tendency people have to make excessive claims for the new technologies. Ex-filmbuff that I am, I've followed developments in digital cinematography semi-closely, for instance. To believe the propagandists (as well as the mainstream journalists), cinema perfection is just around the corner. Portability, cheapness, clarity, access, ease ... What's not to like? And what's not to root for?

Yet what is the experience of watching movies made digitally and projected digitally actually like? I haven't been alone in finding these artifacts bright and flawless -- but I also haven't been alone in finding that the human content in these productions is often vanishingly small. Does the technology itself contribute to that inhuman quality? Can it be a coincidence that the sci-fi and fantasy genres have flourished in a digiti-fying era? Is it pure happenstance that the mass public seems to be losing interest in movies the closer we get to digital perfection? Like I always say: Hmmmmm.

I've played with some digital filmmaking tools, I've talked with professionals who use the equipment day-to-day, and I've followed the trade press. One thing that's unavoidably clear is that the tools are often anything but easy and convenient. They're new, they're groovy, but they're often exhaustingly labor-demanding. Michael Mann, for instance, shot many of the taxicab passages in "Collateral" with a high-end HD outfit. Cool! Too bad that the HD equipment is -- at this point, anyway -- physically more burdensome than the squarest traditional film equipment. So much information is churned out by the kinds of machines you need to create a cinema-worthy HD image that an entire truck of computers and equipment had to follow Mann's HD cameras everywhere they went.

Even when the technology succeeds in making specific chores more convenient, there can be downsides. Computers make editing movies much more easy in a physical sense than it once was. Cool! But professional film editors have discovered a couple of important disadvantages to the new arrangements. The physical work goes more quickly, but the time you have to do the work gets crunched. Producers naturally want jobs done faster. Efficiency in a narrow sense is achieved -- everybody's busy, cutting-cutting-cutting. But efficiency is often achieved at the cost of quality, pleasure, and imaginative participation -- everyone's exhausted, distracted, and annoyed.

Film editors have come to realize that all those pain-in-the-ass hours they used to "waste" manipulating celluloid weren't entirely wasted; these hours also represented time when the creative unconscious was doing its work. Cut that time out of the process and the creative unconscious can get cut out of the process too. (Side effects, there are always side effects.) From a filmgoing point of view, I don't know anyone who'd argue that films today are especially well-edited -- but nearly everyone can agree that films are often more edited than before. Is hyper-ness a plus? Perhaps only to rat-a-tat stimulation junkies.

Another disadvantage electronics have introduced into the film-editing equation is that the technology makes post-production not only more convenient but paradoxically more burdensome. After all, there's now so much more -- an infinite amount more -- that can be done! The computers also create possibilities for creative interference. It's much easier than it once was for executives and stars to ask for alternative cuts and to demand changes. Speaking of coincidences: Is there any significance to the fact that, as electronics have become more embedded in the filmmaking process, movies themselves have become more corporate, as well as more committee (and database)-driven?

As long as I've wandered off in this direction, I'll also report on a couple of recent articles in the various cinematography magazines. I get much more out of following the movie-trade press these days than I do out of reading scholars and critics, mainly because the technicians are frank and realistic about what they're dealing with.

Neither piece is online, unhappily. In one, a cinematographer says that HD videocams need to be able to process at least twice the information they currently do if they're to deliver imagery that can match traditional film. Well, there's another 10 years we'll be waiting for digital perfection.

Another article is a report from ICG magazine. David Geffner, the article's author, asserts flatout that "portability in high-definition video simply does not match the freedom 35 mm and 16 mm camera systems can provide in the field." Imagine: However cumbersome they are, pro film cameras are still easier to handle than pro-level HD cameras are.

The specific topic of Geffner's article is a breakthrough new Panavision HD system. It's a breakthrough because it's considered by the pros to be the very first HD system that's a genuine artist's tool rather than a mere engineering stunt. Short version: Up 'till now, this whole digital-cinema-is-an-improvement noise has been nothing but hype. (Here's a posting I wrote a while back about the bad sides of the electronic cinema.)

So far as the creamy-smooth, gooey, spaces-in-between, human thang goes: Are we not quite there yet because of still-inadequate information-processing capabilities? Or might there something in the very nature of digital technology that -- however nifty and addictive the gizmos are -- ensures that much of we think of as "human" will always escape it, like air moving through a window screen?

One funny consequence of these developments is the way it has heightened generational differences in taste. To people who grew up with analog media, digital media products often seem hard, even a little assaultive. We geezers often find that digital media products are impossible to sink into. They don't seduce, lull, or entrance. Instead, they're aggressive; they pop out at you and give you a mauling.

Yet people growing up with the digital media develop a taste for what the cottontops consider its flaws. The flaws in digital sound, for instance -- the scratchy-crappy early-CD quality -- are now embedded in popular music as cool and enjoyable resources to be drawn on. For young people, they've become a positive part of the cosmic-sonic pallette. Digi-kids love buzz, blare, shimmer, and scratchiness. As far as I can tell, digi-kids often feel lost unless something acrid, harsh, poppy -- something digital -- is busily jazzing and tweaking their nervous sytems.

The fantasy is usually that a new technology will make the production process easier -- that it'll be easier to create what you want to make. The reality often seems to be that the production process becomes more hurried and complicated, and that the product that's produced changes too. You don't make the old thing more easily. You kill yourself making new things. Life with a cellphone isn't just what life was before, only easier. Life with a cellphone is different.

Although I now carrry a cellphone (at least when I remember to), I still do my best to hold back a little something. I imagine I'm doing my part for old-style humanity: Let's hear it for analog/human qualities. My biggest and most daring move so far: I've given my cellphone number to only two people, The Wife and my sister. I'm determined to keep my cellphone usage to a minimum, dammit -- although I'll certainly be calling The Wife this evening to see if there's anything I can pick up for her on the way home.

Interested to learn how other people regulate their cellphone lives, if at all.



posted by Michael at July 6, 2005


My wife, who would not object to being called, technologically inept, fastened on the notion of cell phones with a fierce hunger. There was, apparently, a hole in her life with the size, shape and functionality of a cell phone. As she's out and about all day every day either auditioning or organizing complex child-care solutions on the fly it's as hard for her to imagine how she managed without one as imagining the practice of law without word processing. Me, I'm fairly geeky and love gadgets, but I use a prepaid cell phone and in the three years I've had it I bet the number of calls I've fielded hasn't cracked three digits. For me, it's an occasional answering machine and it drives her nuts that I have it off most of the time. It also drives her nuts that I get better reception in more places. At least, when it's turned on. To me, good news will keep and bad news will assuredly keep.

Posted by: Sluggo on July 7, 2005 11:08 AM

I carry a mobile phone with me all the time, and have been doing so since 1999, but it is only on when I want to make a call, check my e-mail, or post on my weblog. If someone calls me, they get my voicemail.

I mean, nothing is that important that it can't wait for an hour more.

Apart from not wanting any intrusions, there's that small thing called privacy as well. GSM mobile phones constantly make contact with the nearest base station, to be reachable when someone calls. Telecom operators collect this data, and the EU Council wants them to save it for at least 18 months.

The mere thought that my government sees no harm in collecting data about where I have been the past year and a half, makes my shiver.

Posted by: ijsbrand on July 7, 2005 11:46 AM

I wholeheartedly agree with all your problems with cell phones, as I share them to - particularly the removal of the state of being incommunicado.

The main reasons you should never get rid of your landline are twofold:
- 911: Your landline is attached directly to your location/address. If you call and pass out or are too injured to go on, they will still know where to send the boys and girls to help you.
- Power: Because of 911 laws, every primary line coming into a house must have power so that emergency calls can be made. Even if electricity goes out, your line is live due to batteries and other system contingencies. Cell phones and the network of towers are not beholden to those laws, so if the network loses power, even if your cell has a charge, you'll not get through. And there's the issue of batteries dying at inopportune times.

As for the new digital world, I confront one particular reality very often in my job - which is to write software requirements. Often, when someone is discussing software they want with me, I'll bring up the issue that perhaps what they're doing now is the best and most efficient way to do it, and trying to make a computer do it will just complicate things. A flawed example is post-it notes. You can write a reminder on a post-it note and stick it to the best place that will serve as a reminder, such as your checkbook or a mirror. Computer post-it notes are dependant on the fact that it's on, the calendar is correct, and that you are looking at the computer screen to see the note at all - not much good at the grocery store when you need a reminder to pick up your heart pills. Many things can go wrong with computer reminders; they just don't have the same stick-to-it-ivness (har har) that post-its do. So, when someone tries to replace post-its, I'll ask if they really want to. Usually they don't after they've given it some thought.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 7, 2005 12:31 PM

Although I'm quite young, and habituated to digital media and products, I make a point of printing out all the postings on your blog, and reading them on paper, thus cutting down on the harshness and glare I experience with the screen.

Your inquiry into how technology changes the experience of something (film, talking on the phone, etc...) and whether that has to do with innate characteristics of the technology or with shifts in how we produce and what we demand from a given product/experience is interesting though. I don't really print your blog out, but I abhor reading the newspaper online. And forget about a cellphone; I think I'd probably have to wear a helmet if I used it while walking down Sainte-Catherine.



Posted by: Desmond Bliek on July 7, 2005 12:44 PM

Cell phones, I pretty much hate 'em.

They seem to exist solely for the purpose of my lovely wife calling me and telling me to run errands on my way home from work (a traditional thought-free zone in my life.) She, on the other hand, is mostly not available or outside the coverage area or whatever when I call.

Also, at least in L.A., the coverage ain't nuthin' to brag about. Many times I've wondered at how brazen the cellphone companies are to market such devices as communication devices. You know, something that you can reliably use to, ahem, communicate.

Finally, the most egregious bad driving I've seen over the past 2-3 years has almost always been committed by someone with a cellphone pasted on their ear.

There, now, I feel better already.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 7, 2005 1:31 PM

A few things about cell phones (fair warning: I'm in the industry, on the infrastructure side, so I know something about it but might also be biased):

Most of the changes in cell phone technology in the last few years have increased the amount of effective bandwidth available relative to the actual over-the-air bandwidth. This has been possible because most of the information carried in speech can be conveyed in much less bandwidth than that available in a dedicated frequency. To gain the increase, the newer standards use burst transmission and spread spectrum, encoded transmission.

There is a direct tradeoff between sound quality and required bandwidth and more bandwidth is now available, so why isn't sound quality better? In part because there are many more people using the same bandwidth, in part because there is a direct tradeoff between available bandwidth and money.

For a given technology, a cell site will cost some large amount of money to install and service (including the cost of buying the equipment and leasing the space to put it, this is typically in the five-to-six-figure range in US dollars for initial installation, plus more per year). That site will service some number of simultaneous callers; a number that is smaller at higher voice quality.

Since telecom companies compete almost exclusively on cost and coverage, there is a strong incentive to drop voice quality to the point just before where people scream. (For another example of the same dynamic, see the amount of legroom in economy class on aircraft.) If you can convince enough people that better quality is worth paying more for, you could have better quality, but it wouldn't cost a just little more.

Since my company sells the expensive radios that your cell phone talks to, I'm right there with you in wanting much higher voice quality. But I'm not holding my breath until the time most people are willing to pay enough to get it.

As for me, I have a cell phone, but usually leave it off. It's for emergencies and times when I know that I'll be away from a land line but not especially inconvenienced to be interrupted. Like Sluggo's wife, my wife dislikes this, but has learned to live with it.

Both of Yahmdallah's objections to dropping land-line service have some validity, though perhaps not as much as he says.

E-911 services are getting better at identifying your location from a cell-phone call, and will get better still, though at some cost to privacy, as ijsbrand has noted. Note that this objection also applies to using your cable company for telephone service.* Still, if you are calling from home your address home address is associated with your cellphone number (presumably). And if you are not calling from home, there is a tradeoff between making a call immediately, with a possibly delayed response, and taking time to find a phone in an unfamiliar place with a more immediate response after you do find it.

I think that Yahmdallah is correct that cell-phone providers aren't required to have backup power, but essentially every provider in the US does. After enough time, however, the battery backup will go down or the generator will run out of fuel. This is only a problem if the power outage at the cell-site lasts longer than the available backup duration. While this is uncommon, it does happen. It usually happens after the situation is no longer emergent, however.

The other side of this situation is that the cell-phone company doesn't have to maintain a cable to every house, but only to every cell site. In the aftermath of wire-destroying events (windstorms, icestorms, etc.) this can result in a quicker restoration of service. Of course, you have to manage your handset power yourself. (Power outages can be a bigger problem for internet telephony, since that usually depends on a powered router, modem, and computer at your house. Most people don't have long-duration UPSs at home.)

* There is no technical reason that an internet 911 call (voice over IP; see Vonage for example) couldn't have a data block prepended with any information that you or your emergency responder could want. To my knowledge, this hasn't been done yet.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on July 7, 2005 3:35 PM

Reading this post makes me think of a Donne meditation:

"Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..."

Maybe there IS a way to keep a foot in each century?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 7, 2005 4:21 PM

The last of my same-generation friends to get a cell phone did so three years ago, and passed on her number (via mass e-mail, natch) with a self-deprecating, sarcastic message about how she was finally catching up to the nineties. Me, I'm still tethered. (Or relatively so - my landline goes into a cordless phone.)

My primary reason for not going cellular is related to the second reason mentioned in this post. Not only do I like not being reachable 24/7, I don't like the idea of people thinking they can reach me. Is it a power thing, or a reactionary thing, or what? I don't know.

I've seriously considered getting a cell phone on a few occasions, but considering my antipathy toward the device, I see no economic reason. It would be occasionally useful, but folks certainly got by in the past without it. My local phone service is bundled with my cable TV and Internet access, and is therefore cheaper, and I rarely make long distance calls, which I do using a cheap Sam's Club phone card.

If I find a cell phone plan cheaper than what I'm doing now, I'll subscribe, but reluctantly.

Posted by: Ned on July 7, 2005 4:51 PM

1) Buy yourself an earpiece. Cell phones are miniature microwave ovens right next to your brain. This is not Ludditism.

2) Buy a Treo and increase your e-mail addiction. Buy a Treo rather than a Blackberry so you can photo-blog when you're bored walking down the street.

Posted by: john massengale on July 9, 2005 8:19 AM

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