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'Hell Is Other People'

I waited for August to write this column because I wanted to give July a chance. But July has failed.

As I'm sure every reader knows, July was National Cell Phone Courtesy Month. I am here to tell you that it was a flop. Having just completed an in depth, scientific bicoastal survey occasioned by a quick business trip to Los Angeles and then back to Washington, cell manners remain the number one social disease in America today.

I can report to you that the young Asian woman in 22C "so cannot believe that Kim did not come with you guys to pick me up." The lady at Gate D5 did not want her friend to call that afternoon when she landed because she was going to take a nap but maybe they would have dinner later. The portly businessman on the people mover bus at Dulles airport told someone that he needed "my assistant" to go through his phone messages and e-mail them to him so they would be in his Blackberry when he landed. (Ever notice how many loud cell phone talkers have assistants?)

I know these things because cell phones somehow make people think they have privacy in public. Or it's actually worse: they don't care about their own privacy and even more deeply don't care about the privacy of others who they passive-aggressively force to inhale their secondhand chat.

Random details from other people's lives invade our consciousness in public space: battles with psoriasis, bad dates, incompetent cleaning ladies and all sorts of business deals.

The incessant "checking in" and "touching base" is what led the excellent technology writer Christine Rosen, when discussing wireless phones, to quote novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "Hell is other people." That Frenchman wouldn't be able to hack it in a Gap for ten minutes; the mall rats would kill him. (Note to self: send 'Sartre goes to the mall' skit idea to someone at "Saturday Night Live.")

A national survey by Sprint last summer found that 80 percent of those surveyed thought cell phone manners had gotten worse in the past five years; and 97 percent said they personally use good cell phone manners. There you have it.

Contrary to what you undoubtedly think by now, this column is much, much more than just a misanthropic, Luddite rant by a cranky middle-aged white man. This is a genuine public service.

There is a movement out there trying to legitimize and rationalize cell phone terrorism. And in the words of one of America's iconic guardians of the public square, Barney Fife of Mayberry, North Carolina, we have to "nip it, nip it in the bud."

According to some engineers and students of humanoid behavior, "inconsiderate cell phone man" is inevitable.

Technically, the culprit is something called "sidetone." When you talk into a regular old-fashioned telephone, you actually hear your own voice in the earpiece as you speak. If you blow into the mouthpiece, you'll hear it in the earpiece.

Cell phones don't have sidetone; the additional hardware would make them too big. Not hearing your own voice in the earpiece instinctively makes you talk louder and you don't realize it. To use a word you haven't heard before, sidetone or hearing your own voice is "psycho-acoustically" necessary to modulate your voice.

This may be true, but I think it's the moral equivalent of the Twinkie defense and ought to be dismissed out of hand.

The behaviorists add that when you talk to another person in person, it's easy to modulate. You have a sense of their privacy and your joint privacy that for most people creates a desire not to be totally overheard, a desire that wireless phones seems to totally eviscerate. Further, the techno-shrinks observe, the smaller the mouthpiece and the further it is from said orifice, the louder a homo sapien will speak. Psycho-acoustically speaking, it's predetermined.

Now the Meyerian view would be that people talk too loudly on cell phones in public because they are rude louts who weren't raised properly and have no sense of public etiquette and decent manners. Apparently people can no longer stand to be alone: both physically and electronically disconnected from their pack. The ability to be civil and considerate, in public and in tight quarters with strangers, is atrophying.

I believe the solution is a remote control device you could aim at a wireless delinquent and make the cell phone emit a high pitched tone, rendering its user temporarily deaf and incontinent.

It might not be good manners, but psycho-acoustically speaking, I think it might work.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer