Read An Excerpt From 'Cellphone'

Chapter 7:

Kids on the Hook


If there ever was a true technological fable about a device
long sought after which, once possessed, had quite the reverse
of the benefit expected, it would be the strange tale of the
telephone and teenager.

It would begin in the 1950s, when the telephone was some
seventy-five years into its existence. But it wasn't until the
1950s that most Americans had phones in their homes, and
teenagers were in a position to use them. This was a break-out
time for more than one technology that would change society.
Televisions were being installed even faster than telephones in
homes. Cities were spilling into suburbs, traversable mainly by
automobiles.

All of these sleek new technologies became bones of
contention in the family. Who would drive the automobile? A
teenager who drove away in a car was beyond parental
supervision. Who would determine what was watched on
television? Long before the "remote" and endless fights over
who controls it, my sister and I, children not teenagers in the
1950s, had chronic arguments over what would be watched on TV.
My father, I recall, was still happy at the prospect of watching
just about anything on this big magic box, so my mother
adjudicated.

But disputes over the telephone were on another level
entirely. For the telephone clashed, it is not too much to
say, with the very sanctity of the family. Parental authority
was challenged and undermined by the phone call, both made and
received. Teenagers correctly saw the phone as a lifeline to
the most important things in their lives -- conversations with
their friends, boyfriends, girlfriends. Given the choice of
meat loaf and peas -- or even steak -- or a phone call from a
friend during dinner time, what kid would opt for the plate? As
phones and soon separate phone lines began showing up in
everyone's bedroom -- I had one when I was 16, in 1963 (I did
pay for it with money I earned at Krum's, a soda fountain place
on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx) -- the classic punishment
of "go to your room," where you were supposed to commune with
your conscience, became worthless. (The installation of
televisions and eventually computers in kids' rooms had a
similar, undermining effect. Banishment to your room became
exile in the infinite world of people and information beyond it,
in most cases far more interesting than the people and
information in your immediate surroundings outside the room.)

In all of these tussles over the telephone, the teenager
was striving to have one, or at least have access to one, and
the parent was resisting.

No one predicted in those days that the day would soon come
when parents would insist that their kids each had a phone, and
turned on at all times.

The Gripping Hand

Children have been a special concern of media critics since
at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Back then,
observers worried about the adverse effect of movies on kids --
see, for example, William A. McKeever's "Motion Pictures: A
Primary School for Criminals" in the 1910 Good Housekeeping
magazine, in which the professor from Kansas argues that dank
movie theaters where kids wile away their afternoons are
destroying the moral backbone of our future. By the middle of
the century, the locus of presumed peril had shifted to comic
books and television. Marie Wynn's The Plug-In Drug (1977) may
be the best-known of the many attacks against TV. She contends
that watching it can be addictive, especially for children. In
a society in which even love has been said to be addictive, I
guess this isn't too much of a metaphorical stretch. But the
points of actual similarity between real, physical addictions
such as heroin and psychological "addictions" such as television
are nil. (Jerry Mander went even further in his 1978 Four
Arguments for the Elimination of Television, seriously
suggesting that watching television might cause cancer.)

By the end of the twentieth century, the villain was the
Internet. Hence the Communications Decency Act of 1996, wisely
struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, provided
for fines of up to $100,000 and two years imprisonment for
publishing of "indecent" material on the Web, if the material
was in any manner accessible by children (see my The Soft
Edge, 1997, and "Cellphone vs. War 'Blogs' in Chapter 7 of the
current book for more). Thus, the Internet has made television
look respectable in comparison, in the same way as television
earlier helped lift motion pictures somewhere closer to the
status of the "legitimate" theater (itself bawdy in
Shakespeare's time). It is certainly true that children cannot
be stalked via television, and, for that reason alone, parents
are justified in feeling more comfortable with their kids being
couch potatoes than web riders. (On the subject of children and
the Internet, incidentally, there is a world of difference
between pornographic web pages that may be accessible by people
under the legal age of adulthood, and sexual predators using the
Internet to stalk people of any age. The first is a question of
freedom of expression, right to access information, whether
society has the right to legally define obscenity, etc. The
second is simply a vicious crime, online and offline. On
countering that crime, the Web can be an important weapon for
distributing information to the public about known sexual
predators, including what they look like and their whereabouts.)

How does the cellphone figure in this historic, ongoing
dilemma about children and media? As a fundamentally
interactive, two-way interpersonal instrument, the cellphone is
very different from the above cases. Motion pictures,
television, and pornography on the Web provide non-interactive,
one-way information. Predators on the Web are obviously
interactive, or trying to be, but unlike the cellphone, the Web
easily provides contact to strangers, which is one of its
dangers for children.

Do we have any cause to be concerned about the adverse
impact of cellphones on kids? I would say, yes -- but not
because it exposes them to material objected to by parents.
Rather, we perhaps need to be concerned because the cellphone
makes kids too accountable to parents.

There was a time -- indeed, throughout all of human history
-- when teenagers could be away from their parents. This seems
like a simple, obvious fact of life. You want to get away from
your parent, you just walk out of the house. But the cellphone
makes that kind of everyday getaway impossible, without the
provocation of the teenager shutting the phone off, or lying
about its lack of service.

Of course, up to a certain age, children should not be long
out of touch with their parents, or at least a responsible
adult. But teenagers are a different story. Biologically
adult, yet legally and socially "minor," the teenager must often
endure adult urges without the wherewithal to act upon them.
The telephone in the home allowed the teenager to act like an
adult, at least insofar as information was concerned. The
telephone doesn't ask your age, doesn't require a card to use --
well, not the kind of card or proof of age required for
admission to "R"-rated movies. You were under your parents'
roof and supervision at home, all right, but if you were on the
phone, you were miles beyond them.

Why not extend this ability to times you were outside the
home? Payphones did (and still do) this, but the cellphone does
it much better. You can call anyone, anytime, from anywhere you
like, and anyone can similarly call you. But...

That "anyone" can include your parents, the very adults
whose scrutiny you wanted to escape in the first place. And the
cellphone makes it easy not only for your parents to call you,
but for you to call them. In some ways that's worse, because it
puts the onus on you. The phone in your pocket pickpockets your
excuses not to call home at a given time. And if for some good
reason you do not, your parents always have the recourse of
calling you.

The cellphone thus extends and strengthens the sinews of
family. For better or worse -- and the effects are likely both
-- there is no place anyone can be away from family now.
Whereas previously the family shared both physical space and
communication in the home, and to leave the home was to leave
both the physical space and most of the communication, nowadays
the cellphone keeps the communication of the family intact when
the home is left behind. From the point of view of family
communication, the physical home becomes less relevant, less
essential. Instead, the mobile hearth provides some of the
crucial family functions. The cellphone is thus a mobile hearth
not only because it provides access to so many different kinds
of information, but because the core of that information is
familial. Important aspects of family become retrievable,
implementable, anywhere, by the mere press of a thumb.

Why would this in any way be detrimental? Isn't family,
in general, good, and its strengthening therefore desirable?
Yes. But part of growing up, part of becoming an adult, and
therefore part of the proper function of family is also leaving
the family. Not entirely. Not even necessarily physically.
But certainly this means moving from a state in which parents
should and do keep tabs on just about every activity of their
children to a state in which they do not. Indeed, we might
define the passage of childhood into adulthood as a
transformation of parent/children tabs from mandatory to
voluntary.

Joshua Meyrowitz, in his No Sense of Place (1985),
suggested that equal access of parents and children to
information on television -- information previously available
only to fully literate adults, for example, news reported in
newspaper stories, now on television -- was making children much
more like adults. Certainly, the coverage of the terrorists
attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Iraqi War in 2003, on
24/7 all-news cable stations gave children complete access to
the information their parents were receiving about these events.
Children using the Web are also often in the same informational
realms as adults (hence the concern about exposure of children
to pornography -- not a reason to censor the Web, for reasons I
explained above, but nonetheless worthy of note by parents).
But cellphones, which at first seem to continue this trend by
giving children who have them the same access as their parents
to the world of people with phones, may ironically cut against
this trend in the end. In keeping children and teenagers more
accountable to their parents, the cellphone safeguards the
distinction between child and adult -- the distinction between
the accountable one (the teenager) and the one who must be
accounted to (the parent). But if the cellphone does this too
long and too well -- if it keeps the teenager too long on the
apron string, on the towline cell-line of omni-accountability --
then cellphone could become a leash that impedes the growth of
child to independent adult.

The cellphone is actually an excellent assistant on both
sides of this transformational process -- the little child
before and the complete adult after -- just not in the middle,
at the point of transformation, the teenage turning point. The
cellphone works well for parents who must keep in touch with
children and children who must keep in touch with their parents,
and it also works well for adult children and parents who want,
who elect, to be in touch with their parents. But the
cellphone and its 24/7 accessibility can work at cross-purposes
with the transitional stage where children are just becoming
adults, are taking the first full steps towards informational
self-sufficiency, or unaccountability to parents.

The cellphone has not been around long enough for us to
gauge this potentially stultifying effect on teenagers. But if
the effect is real, its remedy will reside in appropriate social
attitudes that limit cellphonic access to teenagers (note,
again, that what would need restriction here is not access of
teenagers to the world at large but access to teenagers, by
parents). As with other possible social disruptions of the
cellphone, the solution, again, would be in more sharply defined
custom.

Husbands and Wives on Call

Parents and children are not the only components of family
whose relationships are being altered, even revolutionized, by
the cellphone. Husbands and wives now enjoy the same ubiquity of
access -- not only to the world, but to one another.

Unlike parents and children, the access between husbands
and wives is, in principle at least, supposed to be
discretionary -- either partner is perfectly within his or her
rights to choose not to make or receive a call. And, in
practice prior to the cellphone, it usually was, certainly for
husbands and wives who were not at home. (Anyone at home was
and still is by and large expected to answer the phone, if not
physically indisposed.) But, as we have already seen with the
cellphone and its impact, the mere possibility or option of
being in phone contact, where previously there was none or the
contact was difficult to attain, subtly yet fundamentally
changes the chemistry of expectations.

Until recently, there was an intrinsic buffer between
family life and business, between the wife who was at home and
the husband who was at work, between the husband who was at home
and the wife who was at work, between husband and wife in both
directions when both were at work. The only easy call to make
was from the person at work to the person at home. The other
way around was not so easy. The workplace was effectively
shielded from the home -- not impenetrably, but layered, like a
coat with many linings. Long ago, in order to reach a white
collar person at work, the caller had to go through the white
collar's secretary. Blue collar workers were even more removed
from phones; their bosses, if they chose, could interrupt their
work with word of someone on the phone for them in the office
(assuming the workers were anywhere near the office, which very
well might not be). Directly dialable phone numbers and
extensions eliminated the intermediaries in many places, but the
white collar anyplace away from the desk was still unreachable,
or not easily reachable, during the business day. The cellphone
altered every bit of that, stripped all the layers away. It
rings right in the pocket of the white- or blue-collar worker,
regardless of what kinds of jackets with how many linings they
may wear.

The home had already been under siege from office work for
nearly a decade, courtesy of e-mail and the Internet, which
allows people to conduct business from the bedroom, or anyplace
in the home with a computer and a modem or other means of data
transmission. We could say the Internet made the bedroom a
suitable place for intercourse in the older, once primary use of
the term -- communication and transactions, for commerce and
friendship, among sundry people, including strangers. The
cellphone injects this homogenization of business and personal
life right back into the office. The result is a world with
fewer and fewer places where just business or just pleasure can
be pursued. (And in this realm -- the business/pleasure
continuum -- the cellphone thus does what Meyrowitz says
television does for adults and children: it blurs distinctions.)

There are numerous practical advantages to this
always-being-in-touch. I much prefer getting a call from someone
in my family telling me we need juice or milk or cookies, as I
walk from my office to my car, or as I'm driving home, than
finding about it after I have passed all the supermarkets and
convenience stores, parked my car in the driveway, and walked
through my front door. The undeniable benefit of the cellphone
is that it sooner or later provides us with useful information
that we would not otherwise possess. Coming from a past of
information scarcity and cloistering -- in which to drive or be
driven in a car meant that we were out of touch with everyone
not in the car -- we are undeniably in the market for the
helpful, timely phone-call. Still, one might say to the
cellphone enthusiast: be patient, you'll get the information
sooner or later anyway, life wasn't so unbearable twenty years
ago, was it? No, it was not. But that's no reason why we
should have to wait now, be inconvenienced, when the cellphone
is at hand.

But neither should we be blind to the way that the
cellphone and its revolution in access can refigure the very
relationship it benefits. Was there ever a time in history when
husbands and wives, parents and children, families, were in such
close continuing contact? The family on the farm has often been
cited as the predecessor to the digital homestead. But unless
husband and wife and children worked literally together in the
field all day, even the farmstead lacked the unrelieved
continuity of contact of the "cellstead". Any time Farmer Jones
was out with the crops, and the Missus home cooking up a stew,
this husband and wife had more communicative space between them
than today's enlightened couples with cellphones.

Is a certain amount of informational distance necessary for
a good marriage? Hard to say. Divorce rates were certainly
high prior to cellphones. Cellphones probably make infidelity
more difficult .... Well, they certainly make being plausibly
out of touch with a spouse more difficult, but they can
facilitate communication between the parties of indiscretions,
so maybe it's a draw. Cellphones certainly make henpecking and
its male equivalent easier. But they also allow faster
apologies -- that is, apologies made more shortly after whatever
the offense -- and that's probably good. I recall wanting to
apologize to my girlfriend for something I said, as I watched
her take off in a plane to London way back in the 1970s. I was
reduced to sending a telegram to her hotel: "Hi Honey, I'm
sorry.... Here's a big kiss..." I had to spell out each word on
the phone to the disinterested voice in the Western Union
telegraph office. "Right, that's 'kiss,' k, i, s, s...." The
cellphone offers a refreshing antithesis to this painful,
comical, circuitous route of the telegram. (Conveying the
content of my telegram by telephone made things even worse, in
this case. Had I written out my message and hand-delivered it
to the guy in the telegraph office, at least I would not have
had to spell out "k, i, s, s" to him.)

The cellphone can thus make it easier to say something
nice. And not only apologies. A cellphone can speed and
facilitate the communication of good news, good feelings,
anything that we don't want to wait to get home to convey....
But impulse cellphoning also speeds expression of pique, which
is probably not so good. If the same device quickens soothing
and venting, "Honey, I'm sorry I was such an idiot before," and
"Honey, you know I was thinking about what you said, and I'm
really furious...," then the net effect upon this aspect of
marriage may end up a wash, after all.

Whatever the impact of the cellphone on squabbling, it
certainly serves to equalize the roles of husbands and wives in
families. We have already moved in the past 50 years to fathers
who spend more time with their children and mothers who spend
more time earning money. By making connections to business and
family equally easy, the cellphone is further transforming
fathers and mothers into uniform, interchangeable, all-purpose
parents who have the same relationship to their children,
providing the same mixture of nurturing and distance, the same
combination of emotional and economic support.

There was a time, not very long ago, when differences
between men and women, including husbands and wives, were
celebrated. Critics of that age have pointed out, correctly,
that "vive la difference!" masked injustices, unfair
restrictions of behavior, mostly for women. One of the
challenges of the cellphone age will be to make sure that such
differences as are worth celebrating, that men and women may
choose (not be required) to pursue, remain available....
Palgrave Macmillan
  • Tatiana Morales

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